According to Pew Research Center, young adults aged 18 to 29 are more likely than their elders to have read a book in a year (Perrin, 2015). During the recent few years, there were many successful movies based on young adult books than ever before such as Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and The Book Thief. As I mentioned in my essay Are Teenagers Still Reading, according to the studies in North America, Generation Z continues to read.  In the U.S., one in four tweens (6-12 years old) and one in five teens (12-18 years old) reported reading for pleasure regularly (Sun, 2018). Contradictory to the general expectation, these studies suggest that the younger generation does not stop reading due to the development of technologies. However, with the development of technologies and social media, text languages and internet slangs had been used frequently in teenagers’ everyday life. This leads to my next concern about publishing for teenagers: when publishing a book for teenagers such as a YA title, how shall writers or editors deal with the invented text language and the internet slangs? Moreover, for publishers, is there any other unconventional ways to incorporate the technologies?


In 2015, a researcher in London surveyed 52 students around 14 or 15 years old and analyzed the impact of using standard English or non-standard English on adolescent identities. She found that the teenagers surveyed tended to use non-standard English such as a dialect to express their ‘true’ selves and to “construct a collective identity” (Brady, 2015). In fact, 96% of them identified that they would speak standard English only with adults whereas 90% of the students could “switch between standard English and non-standard English” (Brady, 2015). By using dialects among themselves, they would distinguish themselves from adults. Opposite to what the researchers expected, most of them would not associate speaking standard English with a high and privileged class; instead, they associated it with adulthood or authority (Brady, 2015). For writers or editors who want to publish a YA title, this finding indicates that using non-standard English such as a dialect would help their young readers identify with the character and feel more related to. An example from classic works would be Trainspotting written by Irvine Welsh. This novel is about a group of drug-addicted young adults and was told as a collection of short stories. Each chapter was narrated by one of the group members through their first-person perspective or narrated by the author. The author wrote the entire novel in a mix of a heavy Scottish dialect and Standard English, not only for the conversations among the group members but also for the entire narrating. The author will switch between standard English and Scottish dialects depending on the character and the situation. For example, when the protagonist Renton is narrating his everyday life with his friends, he will use Scottish accent whereas when he is interacting with an authoritative figure during an interview, he will speak in a formal language (Zikmundová, 2014). This created certain difficulty for readers who are not familiar with Scottish dialect but the author’s “specially devised orthography has been detected as a tool for characterizing his protagonists” (Zikmundová, 2014). For contemporary YA novel writers and their editors, they may also consider incorporating the online “dialect” of teenagers – text language and internet slangs – into their works. Lauren Miracle’s Internet girls series – consisting of three titles ttyl, ttfn and l8r, g8r (as a non-native speaker of English, I have no idea what they stand for even though I identify myself as a millennial) – will be a good example demonstrating how YA novels evolve with the trend.


However, parents were outraged by the Internet girls series and even tried to ban the books, not only because the books depict teens with drugs, sex and alcohol, but also because the books were written in text language (Wellman, 2012). Some teachers and parents may worry that frequently using non-standard English may hinder the teenagers’ ability to learn the correct grammar or spelling or the correct way to write. Nevertheless, a researcher had done a study with a group of primary school students and secondary school students, they found that there was no negative association between the using incorrect language in the texting messages and their performance on a grammar test (Wood, Kemp and Waldron, 2014). The researchers suggested that the impact of ‘lazy’ language use when texting may have been overstated. Teenagers deliberately violate grammar when texting or when talking on social media to save time and they know what is correct (Wood et al., 2014). For parents angered by the Internet girls series, this finding may help them at least not worry about the language usage in the books. For teachers, they should continue to teach their students the conventional rules of formal written language and improve the students’ awareness of the contexts. Also, for YA novel writers and editors, the implication will be the same. When working on a YA novel, they should consider what the book is about, what the age range of the audience is, whether the book is for entertainment or education. Then the writers and their editors should make their own judgement according to the context. If the book is for adolescents’ leisure reading, then maybe incorporating text language and internet slangs is acceptable or even encouraged. However, a teen YA novel writer suggested every YA writer use teenager’s languages wisely. If not, then young readers may feel awkward rather than connected (Margolin, 2016).


The development of technologies does not only challenge the language usage in YA novels but also inspire new methods for reading. In my previous essay Are Teenagers Still Reading, I mentioned the Hooked app as an example. Hooked is a horror-story reading app designed for a younger generation. On Hooked, each story would be told by text messages or online chats. Rooster app is another untraditional reading app like Hooked. Founded by an American journalist Jennifer 8 Lee and her fellow writer Yael Goldstein Love, Rooster app is designed for the younger generation who are used to read on phone. Each month, Rooster will pair a classic fiction with a contemporary work and recommend the pairs to the users. They will deliver the books to users’ phones in a 15-min read instalment that will fit in people’s daily commuting time or a short break from work. Users can choose when they would like to receive the instalments during the day (Fiegerman, 2014). Though this app is not specifically designed for teenagers, it provides an example of how reading adapt itself with technological trends. Another innovative example is the cell phone novel (or text-messaging novel) in Japan. About a decade ago, a Japanese author named Yoshi published his novel Deep Love entirely through text-messaging. His readers (mostly young females) would send suggestions back as the story unfolded and Yoshi may follow some of the suggestions. It became a huge success at that time and later the novel was made into a movie which continually inspired many other Japanese authors to write through text messages (Crystal, 2008). I am not suggesting that publishers in other countries should copycat the exact same format; rather, I would like to provide the example to show how text messages can influence the young generation’s reading, not only by inventing a new language style but also by challenging the format of reading.


From my research, I am glad to find the answers to the questions I proposed at the beginning. I believe that along with the modern linguistic development, contemporary YA novel writers and editors should be encouraged to incorporate text language and internet slangs into their works according to contexts. This will help their intended audiences to identify with the characters. Besides adapting the writing language, contemporary publishers should also consider incorporating text message as a new format of reading. They should not take the new format as a replacement of the traditional way of reading, but as an alternative method that brings diversity and dynamic into the ecology of publishing system and may even help to promote reading to teenagers who are not into reading a print book.


Brady, Jude. 2015. “Dialect, Power and Politics: Standard English and Adolescent Identities.” Literacy 49 (3): 149–57.

Crystal, David. 2008. “2b or Not 2b: David Crystal on Why Texting Is Good for Language.” The Guardian, July 4, 2008.

Fiegerman, Seth. 2014. “Rooster App Is Like a Book Club for Busy People.” Mashable, March 10, 2014.

Margolin, Jamie. 2016. “What Not To Do When Writing YA Books (Advice From a Teen Writer).” February 15, 2016.

Merritt, Anne. 2013. “Text-Speak: Language Evolution or Just Laziness?” The Telegraph, April 3, 2013.

Sun, Melody. 2018. “A Closer Look at the Gender Ratio of the Master of Publishing Program.” PUB 800.

Perrin, Andrew. “Slightly Fewer Americans Are Reading Print Books, New Survey Finds.” Pew Research Center. October 19, 2015.

Wellman, Victoria. 2012. “America’s Most Hated Books? Controversial Tween Novel Series Written Entirely in Text Message Shorthand Tops New List.” April 11, 2012.

Wood, Clare, Nenagh Kemp, and Sam Waldron. 2014. “Exploring the Longitudinal Relationships between the Use of Grammar in Text Messaging and Performance on Grammatical Tasks.” The British Journal of Developmental Psychology 32 (4): 415–29.

Zikmundová, Michaela. “The Language of Trainspotting,” bachelor’s diploma thesis., Masaryk University, 2014.




The moment I came across Milk and Honey was a definitive moment in my life; I realized how fascinated I was about the publishing industry. I read poetry in high school, analyzing form and meaning in Emily Dickinson poems or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it was always so confusing to me. I often wondered why poets couldn’t just get to the point or describe their thoughts in metaphors that make some sort of sense within the first read. To my surprise, Rupi Kaur and this poetry book happened, the poetic phenomenon that changed the poetry community. The feeling was instant, ironic to what this new age in poetry publication is called: Instapoetry.


Instapoetry is an adaptation of traditional poetic ideals into a transformative Internet subgenre. Poets have turned to Instagram, a popular social media platform, to share excerpts of their work in hopes of publication. Instapoetry refutes traditional poetic forms, and instead, polarizes a new style that entwines art with literature. Molly McElwee, in an article for Gibraltar Magazine, shares that Instapoetry is the use of this “photo-sharing platform [giving] poetry a much-welcomed fresh feel… the poems are bite-size, they fit within the square Instagram frame; their font is carefully selected, an aesthetic extension of their work. And, when well done, the platform has skyrocketed amateur writers to the literary mainstream.” [1] Since Kaur’s arrival, it was as if poetry was culturally relevant again. According to Booknet Canada, Kaur continues to dominate all book sales across the world, where “for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly. [2] In 2016, poetry sales increases by 79% over 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 the units sold increased by another 154%.” [2] Andrews McMeel Publishing announced that Milk and Honey “sold more than one million copies in print after just over a year… and are currently in their 16th printing.” [3] In this age of new media revitalizing poetry, shaping the poetry publishing industry, what is the legitimacy of Instapoetry? Thus, in the scope of this essay, I strive to explore what Instapoetry means in publishing, and defend the relevancy of Instapoetry, analyzing how it saves the poetry community by counteracting conventional poetic norms.


Michael Warner, in his scholarly paper, “Publics and Counterpublics” foregrounds a crucial theory that helps explain how Instapoetry has been so successful and unstoppable. Warner explains that a public is self-organized, a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” and “the circularity is essential to the phenomenon.” [4] In order to create this circularity, there must be participants that contribute to the discourse, which in this case are the poets and the readers. Warner considers that “a public is never just a congeries of people… it must first of all have some way of organizing itself as a body, and of being addressed in discourse.” [4] To organize itself, the public is “a social place created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.” It is constantly interactive and linking social interpretation together because social networks are a collective effort and exists in relationships between all participants. Instapoets produce Instapoetry solely for the intention of the poems being read. Without the Instareader, the poems would mean nothing and would not be circulated. This has become an important criterion for the public sphere to function coherently. Moreover, Warner explains that “a public is poetic world-making.” The contributions to a public are often performative acts, that the engagement itself can transform and shape the public. A unique correlation exists between the public and the text. An example is the form in Instapoems that can be adapted and used in other discourses, like Kaur’s iconic line breaks inspiring the works of several new Instapoets: Atticus, Nikita Gill, Amanda Lovelace. Ultimately, it’s quite intriguing and comforting for Instapoets to put their work on 800 million and counting content- creator generated social network service as if a guarantee that there will be a certain readership if the right amount of tags and hashtags are used. Instapoetry will always be a public between the intersection of Instagram and the Poetry Community, and in order to have an “on-going life”, it must have the supporters that continue to produce and contribute to the discourse.


In midst of this digital technology storm, it is uncanny to believe that technology has no effect on books, reading, and publishing. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It strives to simplify our lives, making basic human tasks almost disappear by the robotic programming of completing a task within the touch of a button (i.e. meeting someone face to face versus a quick text). The introduction of eBooks led many people in the industry to believe that print publication would be dead; however, studies show that specifically in poetry, Canada had the greatest sales yet in 2016. [6] Accordingly, Andrews McNeel Publishing proves to be the most successful publishing house that understands the market of Instapoetry and uses it to their advantage, publishing “eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year.” [6]. Kirsty Melville, president of Andrews McNeel, explains that “as a publisher, we go with where the culture goes.” [6] She continues with stating that “the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.” [6] It is as if Instapoetry acts as a complementary tool that revitalizes poetry genre in the publishing industry, where readers are compelled by these strong desires and interests after reading Instapoetry to do something about these feelings, to physically purchase the poetry book and contribute to the monetizing of poetry. Evidently, Instapoetry becomes a gateway drug that revives the public’s cultural interest in poetry, and by this inherent interest in poetry book sales, the poetry community lives on.


Why is Instapoetry hated on or seen as “a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world”? [7] Vinu Casper shares this fair and common critique on Instapoetry: “Poets who spend years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practicing their performance over and over before they take to stage, are being beaten to the punch by influencers with a steady social media presence and masses of followers. These so-called Instapoets get away with blanket statements and empty metaphors under the guise of poetry.” [5] She questions if these simple posts are more “for sake of engagement” as if a marketing ploy that schemes for likes or comment responses from Instagrammers instead of the poetry itself. Similarly, Tham Young, an English teacher critiques Instapoetry, calling it “fidget spinner poetry”, as if it demonstrates a millennial flaw. He suggests that millennials uphold short attention spans that make it harder to critically comprehend and analyze traditional works of poetry. [8] Instapoetry is then seen as laziness, that the incompetency to create a similar product of poetry based off of ancient standards is deemed as illegitimate or unworthy of the same value and praise. This furthers the generation gap within the poetic community, that the older traditionalist poets refuse to accept or learn to understand new styles of poetry. Instead, they turn this misunderstanding into hatred and exclusivity, a poetic culture war.


As a fellow Instapoet, I like to think that there are many reasons why Instapoetry is so favourable; an important one being that “they pack so much meaning into so little language.” [3]. They entwine “the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate share-ability.” [3]. One Instagram account called @Poets follow Kaur’s outburst of simplistic aesthetically pleasing visual/ phrases.  It features many poets that write one-liners/ one stanzas that sound like every day phrases or thoughts. An example is (insert image): “I aspire to be/ an old man/ with an old wife/ laughing at old jokes/ from a wild youth.” written by Atticus, a current popular Instapoet following the steps of Kaur. [9]

Or another that is simple: “you are in/ everything/ I see/” titled “six word poem – poets”. [10] As much as it sounds like everyday dialogue or thoughts, they are very relatable, shareable, “screenshot-able”, and “easy to recall if one is in need of an inspirational quote or late in the day mantra or an impulsive Saturday night tattoo.” [11]. They can be instantly felt and emoted, and if it is so easy to relate to them, it sparks the heavy desire to read more or read on; both that contribute to supporting poetry publishing. As well, Instapoetry becomes more accessible to the everyday reader as more contemporary themes are addressed: love, culture, feminism, gun violence, domestic violence, war, racism, LGBTQ, and other social justice topics. Perhaps it isn’t about replacing traditional works or forms, but using the current medium to foster the appropriate cultural relevance or representation to the era in which the new media poetry is produced. It’s an “innovative progression” [11], one that lures new readers into the inherent simple language in Instapoetry and understands deeper meanings about the life around them, all while using flowery language and poignant metaphors.


Whether it’s continuing to buy print poetry books in the store or reading online content, in the end, poetry is poetry; art is art. Who has the power to constitute what is right and what is wrong if arts and literature are subjective to the reader? In a world that becomes more and more complicated, isn’t it nice to come across poetry that can be simple yet make the reader feel an intense array of emotions? It’s not really different from older poets like Keats, Shakespeare, and Byron; Instapoets continue to “examine their present moment and turning that moment into art.” [11]. They lead a cultural revolution of introducing new, raw, emotional storytellers, while utilizing a simpler writing style, into the community. Sometimes I also find a hard time understanding how posts like “you are in/ everything/ I see.” can be seen as poetry, but perhaps there’s a poetic aesthetic to finding meaning in something so simple. It’s these wonders that continues our curiosities with poetry and makes us continue reading, scrolling.



[1] McElwee, Molly. “INSTAPOETRY – The Age of Scrolling Literature.” The Gibraltar    Magazine, 25 Oct. 2017,

[2] Canada, Booknet. “Poetry Sales Increase Again in 2017.” BookNet Canada, Mar. 2018,

[3] Flood, Alison. “Poet Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey Sells More than Half a Million Copies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2016,

[4] Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413-25. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. < warnerPubCounterP.pdf>.

[5] Casper, Vinu. “Challenging the Insta Poet Community.” PSU Vanguard, 13 Apr. 2018,

[6] Maher, John. “Can Instagram Make Poems Sell Again?”, Feb. 2018, can-Instagram-make-poems-sell-again.html.

[7] Millner, Maggie. “Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print.” Poets & Writers, 2 Aug. 2018,

[8] Gurtis, Alex. “Instapoetry – the Polarizing New Poetry Style That Is Making Poetry Relevant Again.” The Odyssey Online, 10 Jan. 2018,



[11] Miller, E. Ce. “We Need To Talk About Why People Hate ‘InstaPoets’ So Much – And Why They’re Wrong.” Bustle, Bustle, 31 July 2018, destroying-the-art-form-reviving-it-a-defense-of-social-media-poetry-8530426.

Writing books is a tough business.

Selling books is an even tougher business.

The world of marketing has been going through a lot of changes over the past decade thanks to technological advances. Advertisements are less effective, competition is higher than ever, and people’s attentions are split between so many things. Media types sit on a vast range now, and the scope of the world just grows.

What was thought to be effective marketing ten years ago is barely mentioned now.

In April of 1997, an article in the New York Times proclaimed that advertisements for TV was the new way to sell books. It had just reached a time where TV ads were affordable, audiences were reachable, and book publishers were getting excited to jump on the new platform. Not only were publishers competing with each other, they were competing with other entertainment and media: internet, television, and movies. So, expanding into the new frontier of marketing was sensible, and necessary.

It meant learning a whole new form of advertisement. “The challenge that we face is that the advertising has to be entertaining, especially in the movie theatres. It’s as much entertainment as the movies,” the article says (Carvajal).

This is a pretty humorous article to read considering books rarely touch TV now. Maybe the author gets a televised interview somewhere–but a commercial? Unlikely.

According to one experiment run by a non-fiction author, which ran a tv ad for a new book for 10 days, the conversion rates of impressions to customers is terrible. The author measured it by having the commercial direct viewers to a specific website and enter their email. “The commercials created a total of 8.3 million impressions but led to only 112 website visits…. Even worse, a mere 40 people filled in the … form requesting name and email to receive the two free chapters.” (Ford).

With such a low conversion rate, it’s no wonder book trailers on TV are so rare, if they ever appear. The costs do not justify the returns.

In a world where book competition is massive and consumer attention to platforms advertising books is infinitesimal, it almost seems like actually creating awareness of and selling a new book is impossible (ignoring, of course, books from names with already-established huge followings). Most book publishers are cornered with such razor-thin profit margins and slim marketing budgets that taking a risk on new marketing strategies that might cost a buck or two is just not considered.

Nowadays it seems more and more like a books marketability is entirely dependent on an author’s established platform. “In the old world… [a]uthors created the product and relied on their publishing company to market it. But that world is dead. That doesn’t mean that publishing companies expect [authors] to do everything. But it does mean that they are more effective if [authors] have a platform already in place.” (Hyatt).

Now while the branding of the author and the ability of the author to sell by having a following is great and makes sense in some cases, it does not create a very inviting atmosphere for newer authors and, to me, does not seem like a very healthy ecosystem for publishers to thrive in.

How can a publisher take a work of fiction from an unknown author with no platform and turn it into a relatively decent success in sales?

How can a publisher create awareness of a book and drive sales enough to at least break even?

According to my Management and Marketing class in SFU’s Master of Publishing program, we know that the driving force of creating title awareness in a customer base is word of mouth. This is corroborated by a study done by GoodReads, which reported: “One of the biggest things we learned—or should we say confirmed—is the power of word of mouth. Searching for titles on Goodreads is the top way people find books for their to-read shelves. That means they first heard of it elsewhere—likely from friends or the media.” (Brown). This study also shows recommendations from algorithms (Goodreads, Amazon, etc) as influential, and browsing in-store and online as big players.

If most book sales are a result of word of mouth—friends, family, coworkers, influential blog reviews, recommending books to each other—and browsing and algorithm-based recommendations, how is advertising fairing as a driving factor? According to Bruce Batchelor, not very well. (The same Management and Marketing class also states that print, broadcast, and TV advertising does not factor in very highly). “Even the largest publishing houses are quite tight with spending on display advertising—that’s the term for any ad that isn’t in the classified section—because display ads really don’t work all that well for book sales even when promoting a likely bestseller by a politician or other (in-)famous celebrity.” (Batchelor).

Essentially, advertisements aren’t a trustworthy marketing practice for books. To sell enough books warranting its print, marketers must turn to other strategies.

One of my fears about the trade fiction publishing world is that books will live and die by the whim of the algorithm, and what little control a publisher seems to have of noticeability will be wrested from their fingers. Publishers will throw in the relevant info about the book and have to bank on a confluence of digital forces to resolve into that title becoming a suggestion for a certain browser. Playing in the digital space limits the flexibility in tactic a publisher has to draw attention to their title. The algorithm dominates. A little bit of self-feeding popularity loop with a dash of randomization.

One company sprouted to try and combat this inherent issue with the digital suggestion algorithm, a company that has conceptualized a program called BOOKSAI, an Artificial Intelligence book recommendation program that relies less on the “people who bought also bought” method in favour of a different philosophy for recommendation.

They claim that the traditional recommendation setup reinforces an elitist selection of books where few books tap into a torrent of momentum that lifts them to massively popular status, and most books are left in the dust, being unable to create awareness in the audience that would want to read them (Booksai). As well, the traditional system can be gamed by fake reviews and purchases to vault the title into mass market awareness (see the story on how Handbook for Mortals trumped The New York Times in the Donaldson article).

How BOOKSAI hopes to solve this is through an artificial intelligence that actually reads books and recommends them based on qualities such as style, attitude, mood, and tone. It aims to shift recommendations from books of similar genre or plot or by the same author, to books of similar style. From what is it written about to how it is written.

Now that isn’t a new concept. Traditionally, book recommendations have always incorporated the how factor over the what factor. However it is a new application of the concept and it’s fun to think about the effects a recommendation AI like that becoming commonplace might have on the publishing industry. Could it level out book awareness more equally and more specifically to audience target needs?

I do not think BOOKSAI is the solution I am setting out to find, however. An integral part of books is community. The shared knowledge of having read the same text connects people. This is why word of mouth is such a powerful selling force.

As well, the idea of sitting back and letting an AI pick what people read next, for the traditional algorithm and the proposed BOOKSAI algorithm both, goes against a couple basic tenets of publishing and marketing which I will describe after a brief comparison.

After Donald Trump won the USA election in November of 2016, a lot of minds turned to social media and an outpour of critical analyses of the effects of social media on the outcome of the election ensued. It was suddenly all Facebook’s fault for two reasons: fake news (Facebook did not employ a rigorous enough filtering system to ensure only the best news), and highly targeted algorithms controlling what people saw, based on their tastes. “Tens of millions of American voters gets their news on Facebook, where highly personalized news feeds dish up a steady stream of content that reinforces users’ pre-existing beliefs” (Wong, Sam, Solon). This effect created a “bubble” of news that conformed to your interests. Liberals were aghast that Trump won because they were not aware of how many people there were in alignment with Trump. Because they did not see those newsfeeds.

In the world of fiction, it’s different but similar, there are parallels. Fiction feeds ideas, creates modes of thought, enhances understanding of language. Broadens understanding of perspective, creates empathy, exposes readers to boundless viewpoints. With the approach that fiction exists not just to entertain but educate and shape and grow people and societies, the parallels suddenly start to get startlingly similar: the algorithmic approach of recommending books similar to ones we like will create closed minds and “bubbles,” if you will, of modes of thought.

The two tenets I hinted at earlier are this:

In Marketing, it is a marketer’s responsibility to create awareness of a product and educate people why they need it (Luecke). Essentially, it is the marketer’s job to create the market for the product. In book publishing, this translates to creating awareness of a book and educating people as to why they need to read it, and encouraging that need into a sale.

In Publishing, it is a publisher’s duty to distribute books (or other forms of written media) to a public/market for the sake of the betterment of society. This means pushing people out of their comfort zone to read something that otherwise would not fit into their profile of what they already like.

Together these two principles underlie why I cannot stand behind an algorithm-dominated mode of book recommendation. And hence, the problem of marketing is returned with no solution found.

I will bring back my original question: How can a publisher market a book of fiction from an author with no platform—and now expand my question—without relying on the traditional recommendation mode of similar reads and avoid an algorithm-dominated future?

The answer, I believe, holds close parallels to how publishing continues to exist in Canada at all. Much like people (cultural policy nuts) must educate about the importance of cultural content so that the government funding for books will continue, people (intellectual growth nuts) must educate about the importance of that same cultural, and intellectual, content so that people want to (creating a market) broaden their modes of thought.

The approach to this I am not sure about. With a lack of capital and a lack of effectiveness in many traditional advertising methods, it is difficult to create that awareness, that need for a book, especially with the overwhelming number of books in existence. But I will argue this: book marketing should move beyond finding the audience that wants the book to creating the audience that wants the book. Publishers must not just concern themselves with publishing books, but must also focus on ensuring the continued importance of books to a society.











Batchelor, Bruce T. “Book Marketing Demystified: Enjoy Discovering the Optimal Way to Sell Your Self-published Book; Learn from the Inventor of Print-on-demand (POD) Publishing.” Agio Publishing House, 2007.


BOOKSAI. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Brown, Patrick. “How do books get discovered? A guide for publishers and authors who want their books to find an audience.” February 17, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Carvajal, Doreen. “Promoting books via TV commercials and movie trailers has become affordable.” April 28, 1997. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Donaldson, Kayleigh. “Updated: Did This Book Buy Its Way Onto the New York Times Bestseller List?” August 27, 2017. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Gardner, Rachelle. “Do Publishers Market Books.” June 30, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Greenfield, Jeremy. “How Do You Discover New Books?” October 16, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Hyatt, Michael. “Four Reasons Why You Must Take Responsibility for Your Own Marketing.” June 28, 2011. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Kung, Lucy; Picard, Robert G; Towse, Ruth. “The Internet and the Mass Media.” SAGE. May 14, 2008.


Moody, Nickianne. “Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction.” Routledge. Dec 5, 2016.


Rust, Roland T.; Moorman, Christine; Bhalla, Gaurav. “Rethinking Marketing.” Jan 2010. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Wong, Julia Carrie; Levin, Sam; Solon, Olivia. “Bursting the Facebook Bubble: we asked voters on the left and the right to swap feeds.” November 16, 2016. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.


Zickuhr, Kathryn; Rainie, Lee; Purcell, Kristen; Madden, Mary; Brenner, Joanna. “Part 2: Where people discover and get their books.” June 22, 2012. Accessed Nov 27, 2017.




It is almost as though winning a prize is the only truly newsworthy thing a cultural worker can do… in this context it is the prize, above all else, that defines the artist” (English, 2008).


Publishers submit books for consideration to literary award bodies and are thereby responsible for determining which authors are valued in the cultural economy (Bourdieu in Lash, 1993). The issue of diversity in publishing or the lack of it rather has been sung from the mountain tops and it rears its head once more when discussing awards particularly those considered to be the most prestigious. In this paper, I will argue that the Scotiabank Giller Prize also known as the holy grail of awards in Canadian publishing has found its match in the newly created Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA). Regardless of the commercial success the Giller Prize brings to authors and publishers alike, the Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA) have been created at a politically charged time making them impossible to ignore. It is my belief that the IVA will eventually occupy an equal amount of space in the cultural economy.

Because of its ability to command the attention of the nation and the media whilst turning the publishing industry on its head annually, the Scotiabank Giller Prize is what Michael Warner (2002) would label a “dominant public”. The Governor General’s Award and the Roger Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize are both revered but from what I have seen do not command the level of attention and glitz the Giller does. Therefore, using Warner’s theory, I am going to position the Indigenous Voices Awards as the most direct counterpublic to the “dominant” Giller.

  • Firstly, counterpublics are “continually at odds with the ‘dominant’ public” (Alice F, 2016). “Their members are understood to be not merely a subset of the public, but constituted through a conflictual relation to the dominant public” (Warner, 2002). Bearing in mind that it is in its flagship year and winners are yet to be announced, the Indigenous Voices Awards are at ideological war with the very Canadian Giller.  The Giller Prize is focused on the nation-state and finding the “best work” (Scott, 2007) within those borders. As Gillian Roberts (2011) mentions, however, Canadian national literature depends upon nation-state borders overridden by colonial logic. The Indigenous Voices Awards make it explicit that they are searching for emerging talent in “lands claimed by Canada” (ILSA, 2017) disregarding the “national-border”.

Gregory Younging who kindly spoke to the M-Pub cohort a few weeks ago stated in an interview with Quill and Quire that we should not forget that the current times are still colonial albeit not as “intense” as before (Carter, 2017) which explains why in the 23 years that the Giller Prize has existed an Indigenous writer has never won the prize. (Because of the serious questions surrounding his identity, Joseph Boyden who won in 2008 is not representative). Writers like Eden Robinson have been shortlisted but have never made the plunge into victory which brings me back to the quotation used at the start of this paper. Whether we like it or not, literary prizes determine the value and importance of a writer. The fact that an Indigenous writer has never won the most prestigious prize raises questions about whether Indigenous writing is recognised as being of equal merit in Canada. The creation of the Indigenous Voices Awards is, therefore, an act of autonomy where Indigenous cultural workers are saying “you do not need to recognise us, we do not need your validation, we can validate ourselves”.

Earlier this year I argued that the counter prizes which were dedicated to recognising people of colour were in danger of marginalizing/ further segregating the people of colour they wanted to represent. But in the case of Indigenous writers in lands claimed by Canada and based on what I heard from Gregory Younging, this is not the case here. It is not to be directly assumed that Indigenous writers are a part of Canada; they are from their own nations and this prize gives them an opportunity to not be thrown under one umbrella but to be recognised in their own right.

As mentioned previously one of the reasons that the Giller Prize is “the most prestigious literary award” in Canada is because of its monetary value. Since it was founded, it has been “the largest purse for literature” (“Who We Are”, 2017) in the country. The prize wields economic weight and subsequently has become a household name that ensures commercial success for winners, nominees and their publishers alike. The prize is worth $100 000 CAD and its main sponsor is Scotiabank, a corporation.

  • On the other hand, The IVA was created this year as an act of defiance after media executives shamelessly called for the creation of a “cultural appropriation prize” (CBC Radio, 2017). Toronto based lawyer, Robin Parker, set up a crowdfunding campaign which raised over $141 000 CAD to create the prize. Unlike the Giller, the Indigenous Voices Awards (IVA) are currently dependent on the financial support of the public at large. This takes the patronage out of the hands of corporations only and allows the average individual to contribute to the prize. I believe that this model is inclusive and represents another form of diversity, one found in how capital is raised. This also aligns with the IVA’s focus on community. Their mandate states that “the awards [as they are more than one] are intended to support Indigenous artistic communities and to resist the individualism of prize culture” (ILSA, 2017).This instance further shows why the IVA is a direct counterpublic to the Giller.

Looking at the Giller juries since 1994, I noticed that they were almost exclusively white and that when a person of colour was on the panel they were usually a former winner of the prize themselves. Well-known Giller critic Stephen Henighan (2015) argued that the Giller prize was laden with “cozy juries of long-time familiars”, becoming somewhat of a literary Boys Club. Despite the fact that the prize has seen winners of colour such as Esi Edugyan, Madeleine Thien and André Alexis, it is still predominantly Eurocentric and I believe that this is due to the lack of diversity on the judging panel. (I must admit that this year’s prize was an exception).


At the beginning of 2017, I did a dissertation titled “African Diaspora Writers and The Politics of Literary Awards”. My main focus was the Nobel Prize in Literature and the veil of secrecy that shrouds it. I argued that institutional racism was at play in the Swedish Academy, masking itself as “liberal egalitarianism/humanism” (English, 2008) which explains why in the hundred plus years since the prize’s conception, only 3 laureates have been Black. I can argue the same in the case of the Giller Prize with regards to Indigenous writers. Mordecai Richler stated that the organizers of the prize


“don’t give a damn whether a book has been written by a man or a woman, a black, gay, or Native writer, or somebody whose family has been here for 200 years. What [they’ll] be looking for is the best work of fiction published by a Canadian ” (Richler 1994 in Scott 2007).


This statement was made in 1994 and assumed that “Native” people would be placed under the umbrella of Canadianess in assimilation. The Indigenous Voices Awards are turning this on its head by having a jury that is formed of Indigenous academics and writers as well as other people of colour (speaking an array of languages, French and English included).


It would be unjust to scrutinize the prize and not the publishers making the wheels turn. A handful of publishers have been responsible for producing the winning Giller books over the years. These are McClelland and Stewart, Doubleday and Knopf Canada, now all part of the newly formed Penguin Random House. Certain independent presses which contributed to the prize in the past and made the shortlist such as Somerville House and Press Gang, have ceased to exist. A fee of $1500 (“Submissions”, 2017) needs to be paid to submit books for consideration eliminating certain small publishers from the running as this is expensive. I believe that smaller publishers are usually the ones responsible for increasing diversity in the industry.

  • The Indigenous Voices Awards counter this by honouring writers both published and unpublished alike. By doing so they are saying that even work that has not been vetted by a large publisher still deserves to be recognised.
  • Indigenous publisher, Theytus Books, has won numerous awards but none of their titles have been recognised by the Giller. It could be that they do not send their books in for consideration but it is curious that they have won international awards but not the Giller (Theytus Books, 2017). Something I read echoes what Theytus publisher, Gregory Younging implied in his guest lecture to us, “Canadian cultural sovereignty operates at the expense of indigenous sovereignties” (Roberts, 2011). Indigenous literature is viewed as some “other”, inhabiting the periphery of society whilst the Giller adheres to “the dominant construction of Canadianness [which] is still [very] white and Anglophone” (Roberts, 2011). The IVA is therefore crucial in giving Indigenous writers their own agency.



The idea of ranking literature based on the subjective opinions of a handful of people has always been fascinating to me. I know that it is easy to quantify success in sports such as basketball because they are based on point-based systems. But in literature, how can one objectively decide that one piece of work is worth more than another? I ask this but it has been done for centuries and it is not going anywhere. As a raced subject, I recognise my bias in that I almost always side with people of colour and the colonisation of Indigenous people is similar to the colonialism my ancestors and I have faced. It is important for me to point out that I have not resided in Canada for long and that my knowledge of these issues is limited to what I have observed and read in my time here. That being said, I view the strew of Indigenous Voices Awards as the counterpublic to the Giller Prize; they are a platform of cultural autonomy for Indigenous people. I would like to end with a quotation from Sarah Pruys for what we as Indigenous allies can do:


“ Just as the Indigenous community walks in two worlds, so to must publishers. We need to learn how to balance the tangible and intangible; and know both how to help preserve, circulate, and archive culture in a respectful and ethical way, and also know when it is time to take a step back” (Pruys, 2017).


Power to the IVA, I wish them every success.

 Works Cited

Carter, S. (2017). Q&A: Greg Younging on editing indigenous works, story ownership, and Canadian publishing | Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

F, A. (2016). Michael Warner’s “Publics and Counterpublics”. PUB800. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Henighan, S. (2015). How a Giller Prize critic got invited to the party. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Inaugural Competition 2017-2018. (2017). Indigenous Literary Studies Association. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Lash, S. (1993). Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives

Pruys, Sarah. (2017). Engagement and Experience: The Other Side of Archiving, Preserving, and Circulating Indigenous Knowledge…genous-knowledge/ ‎

Roberts, G. (2011). Prizing Literature: The Celebration and Circulation of National Culture (Cultural Spaces). University of Toronto Press.

Scotiabank Giller Prize | Submissions. (2017). Scotiabank Giller Prize. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Scotiabank Giller Prize | Who We Are. (2017). Scotiabank Giller Prize. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Scott, J., & Tucker-Abramson, M. (2007). Banking on a Prize: Multicultural Capitalism and the Canadian Literary Prize Industry. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from, while seeing the Giller Prize as part of a new “cosmopolitan” and free-trade-oriented Canadian cultural policy.

Theytus Books. (2017). Theytus Books. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and counterpublics (abbreviated version). Quarterly Journal Of Speech, 88(4), 413-425.

‘I invoked cultural appropriation in the context of literature and writing only’: Hal Niedzviecki. (2017). CBC Radio. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from


Works Consulted

Bethune, B. (2016). Who wins Canada’s literary prizes — and why – Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Andrew-Gee, E. (2016). Coach House Books: Life after winning the Giller PrizeThe Globe and Mail. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

 New literary prize for Indigenous writers to offer $25K in awards. (2017). CBC News. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Ostroff, J. (2017). Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award Is The Perfect Response To ‘Appropriation Prize’ ControversyHuffPost Canada. Retrieved 28 November 2017, from

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). (2017). Retrieved 28 November 2017, from











Four books walk into a bar.


“Tell me something about yourself.” The bartender queries.


“I am a detective novel. A murder has been committed, and I must piece together a jigsaw puzzle.” The first book announces matter-of-fact, systematically arranging the toothpicks and lining up the peanuts.


“I am a romance novel. There are two protagonists, a central story about emotions and a guaranteed HEA.” The second book whispers. “Also, I am rich. I’ll pay everyone’s bill.”


“I am a suspense novel. No, I do not have a twin called Crime or Mystery.” The third book looks around covertly for its doppelganger.


“This is a literary book. It is everything the other three are not.” Curiously, a pre-recorded voice of a literary critic announces on behalf of the fourth book.


The bartender thinks a while and then promptly places a bottle of tequila in front of his patrons. “You guys have issues. You need a drink.”


Hell yes.


What is the identity of a book? It’s a loaded question and can be argued on many levels. From the book’s tangibility, to its cerebral presence, a book can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Classification of books is primarily done to establish a standardised supply chain between the author and the reader. It’s simply a means to make sure that a book reaches its actively seeking and passively unaware readers. Anyone wanting to read about World War, or about parenting, or a romance,  or about art history, will be able to identify the most probable place to look for such a book. It’s the first clue a reader has while seeking a certain book. So, for an author, it’s important to be in the right place to be found. Without genres or categories, the sales people at publishing houses wouldn’t know how to sell a book, and book store workers wouldn’t know where to shelve it (Vivian 2011). A category is the address where the author and the reader meet; their first point of contact. Two very distinctive addresses being literary and genre. The former is more revered, while the latter is more popular.


Genre fiction, which includes books like crime, suspense, mystery, romance, science-fiction, is generally considered formulaic. What is formulaic fiction? It’s the type of fiction that adheres to the pre-set parameters of a genre. Books in each category follow a certain trope and build a plot that is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t venture too far out of the prescribed lines.


Why do people read what they read? There are abundant of reasons, some of them better or worse than the others and many of them mutually contradictory. Some people read to pass time. Some read to savor the existence of time; sometimes to escape into someone else’s world; or to find themselves in another’s world; at times to flee from need for rational explanations; or to exercise their critical capabilities (Lesser 2014). Every reader that picks a book has some form of motivation for doing so. A book, no matter how well written, will be nothing without its reader.


The reader, while making a choice of reading a book, is effectively entering a contract with the author. A book is chosen based on the author’s profile, the genre, cover, description, review, possibly a sample page and sometimes serendipity. Novice readers might sometimes miss the available cues but experienced readers have developed an intuition and broad familiarity with the books and authors (Ross, Before Reading 2014).


The genre selected by the reader sets the benchmark for reader’s expectations. What started as a means to facilitate trade logistics – the categories, now defines the content that gets written. The publishing world self-regulates itself over a period.


What are these genre specific expectations?


Mystery readers know what to expect when they pick up a detective story. A murder has been committed, the reader is involved, along with the detective (and a possible side-kick), in sifting through clues to uncover a hidden, anterior story that happened off the pages, before the detective arrived. The writer needs to provide all evidence concerning the truth in early pages and yet, keep the reader guessing until the last page. In 1920s this genre was consolidated and rules were set. These rules specify the role of the detective and an introduction of criminal as a character. The writer needs to play fair with reader when presenting clues and use logic to solve the mystery. Supernatural agents, love interest, solving crime by accident, by intuition or by Ouija board are excluded (Ross, Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction 2014).


A Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. It can be female or male centric. This category has been the parent to detective, ghost, horror and romantic suspense. The plot is all about uncovering a secret that has happened before the story began; a missing family tome or opening of a taboo chamber in the house? The narrative is nested in layers to create distance between the reader and the reality (Ross, Gothic 2014).


The love story has a long history, with happy outcomes such as Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and tragedies like Romeo and Juliet. In today’s publishing scenario, the definition of a romance novel is much narrower. The consensus seems to be that a romance novel is something broad enough to include Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Gone with the Wind, but narrow enough to exclude The Bridges of Madison County. A romance can have various elements from other genres – a historical, kidnap and espionage plots, sports theme settings, vampires, werewolves, aliens, and so on. But the central theme is always between the hero and heroine, as they move from misunderstanding, oftentimes dislike at the onset of the book, to declared love at the end. Everything else is secondary. A happily-ever-after (HEA) is a part of the contract between the reader and the author. The key is to achieve right balance of fantasy and realism, with a fairy-tale narrative trajectory placed into a recognizable world (Ross, Romance Fiction 2014).


Horror readers expect to be scared. This genre sees a lot of overlap from other genres like crime and science fiction as scariness is subjective. What might be horror for some, might not be for others. Horror is a fantasy that touches the reader’s deepest fears, where the universe is fundamentally malevolent and a reflection of the society as it exists today. The horror reader simply wants to confront his/her fears. Horror books give their readers the permission to explore their darker fantasies (Ross, Horror 2014).


Considering the expectations that are pre-established by the publishing industry, is it fair to call out the genre books for being formulaic? What is a formula anyway? In this case, a formula is a product of reader’s expectations and publishing standards. Literary fiction is quietly distanced from genre and its restricting parameters by simply being whatever genre fiction is not. The authors that do not follow these rules, do not find their audience and those who follow these rules are relegated to sub-par writing retention room (Mcgrath 2017). It doesn’t seem right.


The society that we live in today is a result of rules and regulations. Work and worship, family and love, celebration and death, everything is defined by rules. We know rules. We follow rules. We occasionally break rules. Rules exist to eliminate confusion and establish a way of life.


To go beyond the boundaries, one must identify them first. The tabla – a membranophone percussion instrument consisting of a pair of drums, used in traditional, classical and folk music in India is played with Taals – one of them being a combination of sixteen beats called the “Teental”. A tabla player creates music with these sixteen beats, using pressure, placement, momentum and speed. These beats can be played in various permutations and combinations to produce music. It’s amazing, the variations in rendition of a tabla, considering its limited sound repertoire. But then, music isn’t just about the sounds that you hear, but also about the silence between two notes, that adds to the depth of the music itself. This pause, or nothingness, between two notes is called Naad. It’s a Sanskrit word that means “primordial sound” in English. The sound which exists and is not produced by striking two objects. This is the sound of the cosmos and of human consciousness, an ultimate sound that transcends space and time, a sound that has no beginning or end. The entire world of music is defined by the rules. The guitar has six strings, the piano has 88 keys and the flute has eight air holes. The form of the musical instruments is just a point of departure, rather than the defining quality of music it can produce. What music it makes, in the hands of the right musician, is what counts.


Similarly, a book is not merely the permutation and combination of words strung together to form a story, but also what the reader reads between the lines; what they experience; what they remember when the book is finished. Genre fiction is all about the Naad. It plays within the genre rules, yet reinvents itself every time, to deliver a different plot and experience to its reader.


The art world mimics these boundaries too. Every painter starts with a canvas and a set of colors. But great art is not defined by the size of its canvas or the amount of colors. What defines great art is the use of the canvas, the symphony between the colors applied, the emotion conveyed, the treatment of chiaroscuro and how the overall painting interacts with the observer. The Late M.F. Hussain, a modern cubist painter of Indian decent, who gathered lot of critical acclaim internationally, was well-known for not painting the face and limbs of the subjects in his paintings. His rationale was that his work was at a higher level of abstraction and didn’t require conventional forms.


Similarly, genre fiction takes its point of departure from the basic understanding of its readership and the author then paints the canvas with myriad shades, to be enjoyed by the right reader, at the right time. The contract between the author and reader needs to be fulfilled. Yes, these boundaries are supposed to be pushed and it happens every once in a while. It’s a continuous process. Lines get blurred as one genre mixes with another; a romance is mixed with suspense, a sci-fi book pairs with mystery, a horror meets Gothic. In the digital age of today, where feedback is seamless and instant, an author has a fair idea about what the reader wants.


To say that literary writers are superior to genre writers would be unfair. Yes, literary writing showcases the beauty of the language more adeptly when compared to genre writing, but then, that’s the part of the contract between the literary writer and reader. The prose must shine. There is no such expectation in genre writing, which isn’t to say that genre readers don’t appreciate well written words. But for them, reading is more about the sound between the words, rather than the words themselves. Ultimately, various styles of writing exist because the readers read at different levels.


Ask anyone what their favorite song is? Or who their favorite painter is? Or which is their favorite book? The answer would always be a function of your perception, mood, awareness and consciousness. The answer would always be what resonates the most in that moment.


The so called ‘formula’ of genre writing is a part of the equation between the reader and the author. It should be kept away from generalization because it’s between the genre writer and the reader. An outsider will never understand the language of a romance or mystery book. Only a genre fan can do it. Like pattern is necessary to produce a rhythm, like a color story is necessary to produce art, genre fiction needs to follow certain rules to be able to deliver what it promises. Call it formulaic or label it something else, but it is exactly what the readers want.


Every sunset is beautiful. Is the sun just a round ball of fire with burnished hues? It comes up and goes down every day. So, what makes it so beautiful? You need the observer’s eyes to appreciate the beauty of a sunset. It’s personal.


Like the choices of a reader. They are personal too.


Anumeha Gokhale



Jodie Archer, Matthew L.Jockers. 2016. The Bestseller Code. New York: St. Martin Press.

Lesser, Wendy. 2014. “Why I Read.” 3-10. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Lisa Adams, John Heath. 2007. Why We Read What We Read. Illinois: Sourcebooks.

Mcgrath, Taylor. 2017. “The Head and the Heart: A Call for Literary Standards in Genre Fiction.” 10 29. Accessed 11 21, 2017.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Before Reading.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 16-22. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Detective, Mystery and Crime Fiction.” In The Pleasures Of Reading, 37-49. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Gothic.” In The Pleasure Of Reading, 65-74. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Horror.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 75-81. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. 2014. “Romance Fiction.” In The Pleasures of Reading, 166-80. California: Libraries Unlimited.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. 2011. On Reading. London: The Belknap Press.

Vivian. 2011. Kvetch of the Day. 09 30. Accessed 11 22, 2017.


One of the more shocking realizations I have experienced recently—not that the content of the realization is shocking, but that the realization never previously occurred—is on the subject of cultural appropriation, and the staggering difference in perception of it between writers and publishers (from my own, anecdotal experience). This revelation came during a talk by Gregory Younging, an indigenous publisher and author of the Elements of Indigenous Style. During this talk, questions and discussions were raised around the importance of indigenous focused texts being authored and edited by people from indigenous cultures, and that white people writing about indigenous culture is cultural appropriation and silences authentic indigenous voices.

When it was discussed and I thought about it, it seemed so obvious, but I had never actually thought about it before. Because, as I learned in writing courses, researching, learning about, and writing from points of views vastly different from my own was the normal, natural way of things. In fact, writers are obligated to use their linguistic prowess to give voice to people that are not themselves or even remotely similar, according to my experience in writing courses.

This quote, by Hari Kunzru, seems to summarize quite well the general inclination of most writers I have read/come across: “Clearly, if writers were barred from creating characters with attributes that we do not “own” (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), fiction would be impossible. Stories would be peopled by clones of the author. [sic] trespassing into otherness is a foundation of the novelist’s work”1 (Kunzru). However, in a more convincing argument, Nisi Shawl says “if [writers] ignore non-dominant cosmologies and traditions and exclude them from their work and their libraries, writers…could be said to have contributed to their erasure” (Shawl).

I graduated with a degree in music at the University of British Columbia, but I studied (in that I spent most effort, time, and thought on) creative writing. We learned the phrase “write what you know,” but we also learned about doing our research in order to create an authentic voice of someone else. From that perspective it is an innocent practice meant to create art and something new. We learned that writing is to reflect “the human experience.” Not a particular human experience, but the human experience.

In a sense, that is true. The collective efforts of all writers is to reflect the entirety of the human experience which is an interconnected patchwork of near infinite experiences across a shared universe. In another sense, it’s reductive and trivializing of differences between the various human experiences bred from culture and the relationship of one culture to the next.

So far in my time at SFU with the MPUB program, I am seeing far more emphasis on literary works about certain cultures being produced by those same cultures and I am being introduced to the politics of it all, to the actual effect one piece of culturally appropriative writing can have on one from that culture.

The idea that one should only write from one’s own culture is complicated. Setting aside the argument of the definition of culture, one’s definition of cultural appropriation can vary from person to person in terms of the extent to which an outsider utilizes another’s culture in their work. There are all sorts of examples to draw from including recent controversy and older literature considered part of the classic canon.

The obvious, recent one is Joseph Boyden2. With all of the questions leveled against him about his identity, and whether or not he even has indigenous heritage, not only is his authority to represent indigenous voices revoked, but his work can retroactively be perceived as oppressing indigenous voices. He has been such a loud and powerful voice that he has left little room for other voices of indigenous peoples to speak out.

Then there are established literary classic novels like The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, where four points of view are written: a severely mentally handicapped man, another mentally handicapped though higher functioning man, a black servant, and a white man. Three of the four characters are white, but the severely handicapped character, Benji, raises questions not of cultural but of intellectual and experiential appropriation and misrepresenting disabled characters; “…unquestioning acceptance of him as a successful representation of intellectual disability reveals an underlying ableism in the literary critical endeavour and an academic acquiescence to dated socio-cultural constructions of disability” (Vanier). This expands the controversy to not just be about writing about others being people of different cultures but of different intellectual capabilities and cognitive development. To round it out, socioeconomic status, upbringing, gender, and personal identity vastly change one person from another’s experiential understanding of the world—is it oppressive or offensive for a white man of high income to write in the voice of a young white drug-addicted woman on the streets? I raise this question not to trivialize the hurt of marginalized communities that are being stripped of their voices and talked over daily; I raise it to identify the deeply entrenched tradition of writing from other points of view in the cannon of literature.

This essay is predominantly on cultural appropriation so I will not digress far into it, however since I cannot fully relate to someone being culturally appropriated, I would like to draw the comparison of appropriating cognitive capability and experience to contextualize where my argument is coming from. Working with people living with various mental and developmental disabilities as well as living with my own, I have often found the trend of neurotypical people jokingly relating to severe mental illnesses aggravating, and even more so with literature that improperly represents people with disabilities by stacking them up with the stereotypes of that disability5. This perpetuates the trivialization of the serious of the illness. When I see an author with no known or disclosed mental illnesses trying to write in the voice of someone with a mental illness, I prickle with anger and my first instinct is to blacklist that author from my reading list and argue with anyone reading that book to stop reading it. It doesn’t matter how much research that author does, he or she will never be able to fully relate or properly represent somebody actually dealing with mental illnesses. From this perspective I understand why people of marginalized cultures would not want an outsider author writing from their perspective.

In the sphere of fantasy and sci-fi, the appropriation of culture is ubiquitous. From directly basing a fantasy race on an existing culture to creating one from a smorgasbord of various cultures, it can be very problematic. This is only anecdotal now as the website has been deleted, but a blogger I followed, whose premise was to critique issues in fantasy and pop culture in general, being Irish himself, took serious offense from and wrote extensively on the trope of travelling wagon-living people stereotypically derived from the Irish Travellers pejoratively referred to as tinkers3.

It is a common occurrence in fantasy to use other cultures to create the feeling of exoticism to allow the escapism fantasy aims to create. And very often, these other cultures are being represented but for the purpose of appealing to a white western audience and also these cultures are boiled down to their stereotypes that the audience recognize and feel comfortable with, misrepresenting them.

Beyond literature, visual arts and music are chock full of cultural appropriation:



Picasso famously appropriated motifs which originated in the work of African carvers. Painters who are members of mainstream Australian culture have employed styles developed by the aboriginal cultures of Australasia. The jazz and blues styles developed in the context of African-American culture have been appropriated by non-members of the culture from Bix Beiderbecke to Eric Clapton. Paul Simon has incorporated into his music elements of music from South Africa’s townships. The American composer Steve Reich has studied with a master drummer from Ghana and the rhythms of Ewe culture has influenced his compositions. The poet Robert Bringhurst has retold stories produced by members of North American First Nations.

  • Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, pg. 1



Of the above examples, some are ethically unacceptable, but some are ambiguously, debatably acceptable. Just as cultures do not live in a vacuum apart from each other—rather, they mix and mingle—so too will the arts of these cultures come into contact and come away changed and new. However it is imperative that the process by which this happens is sensitive to the myriad of voices that exist in the total tapestry of earth, and that each culture gets a chance not just to speak for itself, but to speak of its experience in relation to the cultures surrounding it.

Circling back a bit to mental illness represented in literature: people with mental illnesses are more and more included in society and literature being a reflection of our world needs to reflect that aspect of our world. It is important that neurotypical authors represent that side of humanity from their own perspective.

This brings me to my main argument: cultural appropriation (and appropriation of any voice) is never okay, but a person does not live exclusively within their own culture; rather they are exposed to a myriad of cultures apart from their own and so should create art that is representative of their own experience and understanding of the world. Faulkner did not write a severely mentally handicapped character and a black character to oppress their own voices; he wrote them to create a rounded picture of a family in a time period. Certainly, the handicapped character was used largely as a literary device, but he managed to write the character with depth and as an integral part of the novel nonetheless.

While “stories should reflect the diversity of our world4,” it is also the diversity  of stories being told from a diversity of authors that will truly and authentically reflect the diversity of our world; one story can only reflect diversity from a single (not very diverse) perspective. But since one’s experience and understanding of the world is affected by the various interrelationships of peoples and cultures around them, stories should include this aspect to properly capture the complexity of existing. There’s a balance and it’s important for one to understand this balance.

In essence, a single author must absolutely write a story within complex and complicated settings of diversity, but that is only one author’s perspective on diversity and not an authentic voice representing another culture; it is an authentic voice representing his/her understanding of another culture, and this must be seriously considered not only by an author when choosing to include other culture in a work, but also by publishers when deciding what to push out into the world, and how to position it in its deliverance.

When writers, artists, or any other person, say things like “We wouldn’t have Eric Clapton without him appropriating black culture” or “this person of colour here liked the white author’s novel from a person of colour’s perspective” and therefore “cultural appropriation is fine and dandy and even encouraged in the arts,” they are entirely missing the point (not actual quotations). Even if they do their research and represent the cultures other than their own half-decently, they are still stealing the opportunity for someone from that culture to say it themselves, with more authority.

As publishers we need to be absolutely critical and aware of the spotlight and who is in it, and we need to make sure all voices are being allowed time on the podium. Publishers are the gatekeepers (including self-publishers). The responsibility falls on publishers to ensure representation of one culture is not grifted from an authentic voice and that the diverse reflection of our world in text gets equal diversity in representation by writer.





1This article is a collection of opinion pieces defending the right to culturally appropriate by authors:


2For a more indepth, dualistic exploration of this controversy, consider, Joseph Boyden’s side ( ) and the accusations leveled against him ( ).


3For an overview of Irish Travelers:


4A good introductory article on striking the balance:


5A good, short read on the popularized use of OCD and the problem with its usage:








Boyden, Joseph. “My Name is Joseph Boyden.” August 2, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Coombe, Rosemary J. “The Properties of Culture and the Politics of Possessing Identity: Native Claims in the Cultural Appropriation Controversy.” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Volume 6, Issue 2. June 9, 2015.


Couchie, Aylan. “Commentary: Let’s Start with what Cultural Appropriation is not.” May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Hagi, Sarah. “A Bunch of White Canadian Editors Really Love Cultural Appropriation.” May 12, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Hines, Jim C. “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other.” May 1, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2017.


J.C. “Art for All.” September 13, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Johnstone, Ingrid and Mangat, Jyoti. “Reading Practices, Postcolonial Literature, and Cultural Mediation in the Classroom.” (Chapter 3). Springer Science & Business Media, March 24, 2012.


Kay, Jonathan. “Why is Joseph Boyden’s Indigenous Identity being Quesitoned?” December 28, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Langan, Michael D. “Commentary: Cultural Appropriation—good or bad?” September 25, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Lawton Andrew. “Commentary: Is Cultural Appropriation an Act of Theft or Artistic Literary Exploration?” May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Mcmahon, Ryan. “What Colour is your Beadwork, Joseph Boyden?” December 30, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory, Colume 16, Issue 4 (474–503). November 6, 2006.


Russell, Andrew. “What you need to know about the cultural appropriation debate.” May 19, 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Shawl, Nisi. “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation.” October, 2004. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Tipu, Fatima. “OCD is Not a Quirk.” February 22, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Vanier, Jean. “Becoming Human.” House of Anansi, 1998. Excerpted in Faulkner, William’s “The Sound and the Fury,” W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.


Various. “Irish Travellers.” Wikipedia. Accessed October 30, 2017.


Young, Helen. “Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness.” Routledge, August 11, 2015.


Young, James O. “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts.” John Wiley & Sons, 2010.


Ziff, Bruce H. and Rao, Pratima V. “Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation.” Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Who are romance readers?


A romance reader is often adjudged as being a single, cat lady in need of a man, or they’re someone who lacks romance in real life, or they are nice people, reading stupid books. Maya Rodale debunks these myths in her article, ‘Who Is the Romance Novel Reader?’ Contrary to the popular belief, the romance readers are educated, working women, averaging between ages 30-55, earning about $55,000 a year, successfully manage career and households and are usually in a relationship (Rodale 2016).


According to survey results from Romance Writers of America, 84 percent of romance readers are women and 16 percent are men — up from 9 percent a few years ago. The romance industry is large — more than half of the mass market paperbacks sold in the U.S. are romance — and its readership is vast as well (RWA 2015). Romance fiction is the most read genre, with the industry drawing $1.44 billion in sales in 2012, and sales are estimated to be $1.35 billion in 2013 (Patel 2014).


Romance is often considered a ‘lowbrow’ form of writing & readership. Who coined it first? No one knows. Maybe to understand this disdain attached to romance books and its readership, one must reflect on the last 200 years and the evolution of women’s fiction. I remember reading romances as a teenager, often covered in non-decrepit brown paper, to avoid being labeled as the ludicrous ‘romance reader’ or worse—an escapist. Even though it dawned on me that my reading material supposedly lacked in literary value and was colloquially termed as trash; I had no qualms in pursuing my happily ever after foraging.


Critic and literary historians have rationally subscribed to the view that readers are either highbrow or lowbrow. It’s usually believed that trained and untrained minds do not share the same taste when it comes to reading habits. The literary elite question the purpose of reading and the effect of lowbrow literature on ignorant minds.


Victor Nell, in his book, Lost In A Book, refutes this belief and labels it ‘The Elitist Fallacy’. According to him, the two groups of readers—highbrow or lowbrow, do not exist. He argues that a sophisticated reader will often enjoy deeply felt and delicately wrought literature; the same person is likely to lose themselves in a Harlequin romance during a long airplane journey (Nell, The Elitist Fallacy 1988).


As a child, when one first starts reading, the focus is on language and stringing the words correctly to form coherent meaning. A mature reader attains fluency in language and gains higher level of emotional engagement with the text. This is usually the tipping point where a young reader moves beyond the encouragement of parents and teachers and takes up reading as a voluntary habit (M. Wolf 2007). For me, this tipping point happened while reading Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie. The plot revolved around a regular sized woman, Min Dobbs, and her quest to avoid doughnuts & men pretending to be doughnuts. Min was smart, funny and real. This is when I fell in love with the idea of love. My point being, everyone has a tipping point when venturing into the magical world of books. What they end up reading depends a lot on who’s guiding them or where their natural affinity lies.


To better understand the romance reader, we must first understand the concept of ludic reading. Why romance readers read, what they read.


‘Ludic’ or ‘absorbed’ reading is often identified as a state in which readers become oblivious to the world around them, usually willingly. Some readers read like this, others can’t. For readers with the ability to become so absorbed in a book, aesthetic quality has little to do with enjoyment. The word Ludic comes from Latin Ludo, meaning ‘I play’. Ludic reading corresponds to the pleasure reading, reminding us that reading is a playful activity, is intrinsically motivated and usually engaged in for its own sake (Nell, The Insatiable Appetite 1988). It would be safe to say that romance readers are ludic readers to highlight the engagement and trance like absorption that can result during reading a great novel. This pleasure derives, in part, from novels’ intense components of emotion and fantasy, such that readers’ imaginative engagement with the story shapes who they understand themselves to be (Roach 2016).


In her book, Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf craftily inserts an excerpt from Proust’s book, On Reading and asks the reader to read the text as fast as they can.


There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist (M. Wolf 2007).


After reading the above text, Ms. Wolf asks the reader to analyze what they were thinking while reading the paragraph. She claims that Proust successfully conjures up the reader’s long-stored memories of books; the secret places they hid in, to read. Perhaps took them to the moments they spent reading underneath a tree, eating their favorite snack, completely lost in a trance; reading for the pleasure of reading (M. Wolf 2007).


Similarly, a romance reader has the ability of ‘Passing over’, a term used by theologian John Duane, describing a reader’s ability to step into the shoes of the character; be it a knight readying for battle, or how a heroine behaves, how an evildoer can regret a wrongdoing. The moment this happens; the reader is no longer limited by the confines of their own thinking.


When you read the above paragraph from Proust’s book, you engaged an array of cognitive processes like attention, memory, visuals, auditory and linguistic processes (M. Wolf 2007). Romance readers go through this process quite seamlessly. Even though, it is argued that romance fiction is repetitive and formulaic, but the reader simply wants the rush of familiar, yet elusive, euphoria that comes with finishing a great love story.


The good news for publishers is that romance readers are singularly voracious and loyal. A recent Nielsen study reported that around 15% of the genre’s fans buy new books at least once a week; 6% do so more than once per week. These core romance fans are avid readers who stay very loyal to the genre. Moreover, 25% of buyers read romance more than once a week, and nearly half do so at least once a week; only 20% read romance less than once a month (Nielsen 2015). Where an average American reads 12 books a year, a genre reader reads as many 20 titles in a single month (Ha 2016).


Considering the sheer volume of consumption of romance, why don’t more readers admit to reading them?


Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the history of mass culture. Mass culture is a term that plays on the wide self-belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality and quantity of culture. It has been deemed as being incorrect by G.H. Lewis who argues that there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that mass culture harms its consumers. (Lewis 1978). Since the sixteenth century, Western views of correct use of time and sinfulness of worldly pleasures have been powerfully influenced by religion, especially, Puritanism. The use of time and money, on anything not related to God-ly pursuits, was frowned upon and squandering away money for profane works of fiction was against the religious ethics. This belief has trickled down through centuries (Nell, Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System 1978). Women fiction was, and to an extent still is, given a cursory brush off.


These issues do affect the social and personal determinants of the romance reader’s choice of reading material and how they feel about this choice. Most romance readers see themselves as book addicts, like cigarette smokers, and feel compelled to justify their choices. Often believing that admitting to reading such books would alter how people perceive them, and run the risk of being tagged as ‘frivolous’. This is quite unfortunate because the idea of what is highbrow and lowbrow is skewed. Romance books are often labeled as trash, on the basis of being unoriginal, predictive, depraved or formulaic. While at the same time the same aesthetic is applauded as art, be it Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, where sexuality is celebrated or the repetitive reproduction of ‘Madonna & Child’ that held generations of artists in rapture. The interest or arousal boost one gets from such art is similar to what a romance reader derives from reading a novel. Yet, they are world apart as far as perceived literary value goes.


The fact that romance readers read really fast tends to suggest that they merely skim the text and do not sink between the lines, as a non-fiction reader would. To ascertain the credibility of this assumption, we must examine the relationship between reading speed and ludic reading. Reading speed is a function of text and comprehension. In a lab experiment, Nell engaged a group of readers to read three paragraphs of increasing difficulty, while pressing a buzzer at regular intervals. It would be an obvious assumption that readers pressed the buzzer more promptly while reading easier text, considering that it requires lesser attention. It would be a wrong assumption. The experiment threw light on the fact that as the difficulty of the text increased, the reader’s speed decreased and they became more susceptible to outside disturbances. This happened because comprehension failed to take hold of the reader’s attention and left them somewhat akin to a tourist who is listening to a news broadcast in a foreign language (Nell, Reading ability and reading habits 1978). Romance readers usually read fast because they understand the language of romance narrative, and not because the reading material is sub-par or lowbrow.


So, if the constraints of religious ethics were removed and a highbrow reader was marooned on a deserted island with bundles of romance novels, their covers stripped off, would the highbrow reader succumb to reading for pleasure, relaxation and reading trance? Your guess is as good as mine.


In my opinion, romance readers do themselves disservice by relegating their reading choices to trashy or lowbrow. Reading is a gift and an acquired skill. It should be able to serve us in a spectrum of ways. A reader can oscillate between complex, beautifully written literary works and just as well-written, poignant tales of love, without having to justify their choices. The debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature has been raging for centuries. The lines between the two have been blurring as the middlebrow literature is emerging. The romance reader, meanwhile, is lost in their kindle, away from all judgment and is enjoying a thrilling, imaginary ride.


William Faulkner once famously said, “Perhaps they were right putting love into books. Perhaps it could not live anywhere else.”


Perhaps he was right.


Anumeha Gokhale

MPub 2017

Works Cited

Ha, Thu-Huong. Maverick women writers are upending the book industry and selling millions in the process. 07 22, 2016. (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Lewis, G. H. “The Sociology of Popular Culture George H. Lewis.” Sage Publications, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Plague of Spirit, Death of Mind: Pleasure reading and the Social value System.” In Lost in a Book, by Victor Nell, 26-30. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “Reading ability and reading habits.” In Lost in a book, by Victor Nell, 84-97. Yale University Press, 1978.

Nell, Victor. “The Elitist Fallacy.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 4-6. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nell, Victor. “The Insatiable Appetite.” In Lost In A Book, by Victor Nell, 2. Yale University Press, 1988.

Nielsen. LITERARY LIAISONS: WHO’S READING ROMANCE BOOKS? 10 08, 2015. (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Patel, Sital S. Read lowbrow fiction in public: Novels like ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ spark sales on e-readers. 07 22, 2014. (accessed 10 25, 2017).

Roach, Catherine M. ” Going Native: When the Academic Is (Also) the Fan.” In Happily Ever After – The Romance Story in Popular Culture, by Catherine M. Roach, 28-32. Indiana University Press, 2016.

Rodale, Maya. Who Is the Romance Novel Reader? 05 07, 2016. (accessed 10 24, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Wolf, Marryanne. “The ‘Natural History’ of Reading Development.” In Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf, 108-33. HarperCollins, 2007.

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reading Lessons From Proust And The Squid.” In Proust and the Squid, by Mayanne Wolf, 3-17. HarpeerCollins Publishers, 2007.


Trigger warnings have appeared at the beginning of online articles and blog posts since the late ‘90s (Vingiano 2014), and through ratings, at the beginning of movies and television shows for decades (Motion Picture Association – Canada 2017). But books, so far, seem to have avoided this trend of identifying disturbing material prior to its appearance.


In this essay, I will argue that publishers should begin including trigger warnings at the beginning of books with explicit content that is known to be triggering for significant percentages of the population. Trigger warnings are not meant to dissuade people from reading difficult material, but rather to prepare them for it. In this way, warnings about content help to break down barriers and stigma that people dealing with mental illness face, and make books more inclusive and accessible.


Trauma is defined as “normal reactions to abnormal circumstances” (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment 2014) and everyone’s response and resilience to traumatic events is different (American Psychological Assessment 2000). How trauma affects the brain will be discussed later on. For the purposes of this essay I will refer to trigger warnings as they are most commonly used in the online world, which has embraced the use of a short, often-italicized sentence at the beginning of an article containing detailed or lengthy discussion about hard topics like sexual assault, hate crimes and war, self-harming behaviour, or suicide (Vingiano 2014). This is not to minimize or ignore other traumatic experiences, but rather to list topics generally agreed upon by the online world as potentially triggering.


Over the last few years, trigger warnings have become a highly contested topic on post-secondary campuses across North America. This argument should also be had in the publishing world. So to begin, I’d like to review the discussions taking place in universities and then discuss how this relates to the publishing industry.


Students have asked that they be warned before being exposed to sensitive material that may elicit a traumatic response that could affect their learning. As Matilda Grey, president of Monash University’s student association said in support of a new trigger warning policy, “this will allow students who do have a response, whether that be an anxiety attack or a panic attack based on any previous traumatic experiences, to be able to prepare themselves and take responsibility for their actions and manage those responses” (Palmer 2017).


Meanwhile, defenders of free speech and academic freedom argue that students should be challenged and prepared for the real world, not coddled and protected (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). This group also argues that they couldn’t possibly account for and announce all possibly triggering content (Pettigrew 2014). They claim that to state “trigger warning” on class materials is a form of censorship (Halberstam 2017, 535).


“Although trigger warnings and safe spaces claim to create an environment where everyone is free to speak their minds, the spirit of tolerance and respect that inspires these policies can also stifle dialogue about controversial topics, particularly race, gender, and…religious beliefs,” said Alan Levinovitz, a professor at James Madison University (Levinovitz 2016). This is a fair argument, although it neglects to investigate how hard conversations and safe spaces can coexist. Teachers can create space for people on both sides of issues to speak. They can offer to be available for further support and discussion during their office hours.


But in publishing, books do not afford the same space for discussions that classrooms do. In a classroom, the conversation is two-sided, whereas in books there is only one side to the discussion and no support or additional resources available for decompressing following the introduction of difficult material. As publishers, we cannot control the reading environment, and therefore have no idea if readers are surrounded by supports when they encounter a particularly difficult passage. This is likely part of the reason trigger warnings grew out of online spaces, but have yet to reach classrooms, which have traditionally been championed as safe, inclusive spaces (whether they are or not).


As Colby College Assistant Professor Aaron R. Hanlon said, “Trigger warnings don’t need to be the end of a difficult conversation; more often they’re actually the beginning of one” (Hanlon 2015). To include trigger warnings is a way we can be proactive in developing a socially responsible product, and to show that we care about our readers and not just about their wallets. It is a concrete step we can take to support victims.


The Atlantic’s Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in that “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like” (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). Here lies the second problem. Opponents of trigger warnings seem to forget that people who are triggered have already experienced trauma in the past, trauma that they may still be dealing with in the present. They forget that:

  • Of the 261,000 incidents of sexual assault in 2014, 41% were reported by students (Conroy and Cotter 2014).
  • 22% of young (aged 15-24) Indigenous women have been sexually assaulted (Conroy & Cotter 2014).
  • 39% of Canadian women aged 16 and older have reported experiencing at least one sexual assault (Statistics Canada 1994).
  • The above data excludes Canada’s territories (Statistics Canada 2013); and since rates of sexual offences against women are 12 times higher than the provincial average in Nunavut, and 9 and 3.5 times higher in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, these statistics would skew the national averages higher (Sinha 2013).
  • Trauma is not limited to sexual assault, but also includes experiences with war, suicide, self-harm, and so forth.


They forgot that often we don’t see the battles people are facing, and instead they trivialize the issue by saying they can’t warn students every time a spider or a clown appears in course content. “Whether or not the warnings are required, I still think that it is ethically responsible to share with students your course content so that they can be prepared, given the high rates of sexual assault among college students,” argued Elana Newman, a University of Tulsa psychology professor (Smith 2014, 158).


When educational institutions suggest that trigger warnings will encourage students to avoid reading material, they are essentially saying that surprising people with the content ensures that they will read it. This assumption shows a blatant misunderstanding of the way that trauma affects the brain. Trauma-affected brains may continually relive the experience; avoid any reminder of the experience (whether conscious or involuntary); or remain in a state of hyperarousal, also known as fight, flight, or freeze (Canadian Psychological Association 2017, American Psychological Assessment 2000). Triggering events can cause people to re-experience these states, which are often accompanied by symptoms such as an inability to concentrate or finish tasks, increased anxiety, diminished participation in activities, prolonged distress, and/or feeling estranged from other people (American Psychological Assessment 2000). Essentially, people who are triggered may not be able to finish reading or will not be able to process and understand what they read. And while people who are not triggered may experience some discomfort, they are still able to learn through this discomfort (Rae 2016) and will be better prepared to do so.


Extrapolating this knowledge to the publishing industry, not including trigger warnings may mean that people are putting books down feeling angry and upset, and may not pick them up again. Even though psychological research is not yet clear about the effects of trigger warnings, it does show that no one can predict who will experience secondary trauma from material (Smith 2014). Like medical professionals, we should err on the side of caution when it comes to peoples’ health.


Paying attention to outside trends—like students requesting trigger warnings in their university classes—is also a valuable exercise for publishers in Customer Relationship Management (CRM). As basic marketing teaches, good CRM leads to higher Customer Lifetime Value, which positively affects the bottom line. It is far easier and cheaper to retain your current customers than to attract new customers, and if you treat them well these customers will continue to give you business throughout their lives (Maycotte 2015). By not listening to what customers want, publishers risk increased returns and angry readers who will swear off certain authors, or possibly even publishers, because the content does not adhere to societal guidelines (Marrow 1993, 348). Younger generations are advocating for trigger warnings to become mainstream because they grew up in an online world where the warnings were normal and expected.


Over the past few years we have watched numerous high profile men be accused of sexual assault. These discussions have ensued because the world is changing, and it is becoming a place where this behaviour is being denounced publicly as unacceptable. The young, educated generation is standing up and speaking out about what they want their world to look like, and to dismiss their needs as irrelevant only exacerbates the problem. To claim that they want to be coddled and protected from the very things they are vocally and constantly standing up against is contemptible. We can’t make the trauma people have experienced go away. But we can respect them when they tell us to listen to this one simple thing that will make it easier to get through the semester or the book.


Yes, it is difficult to know what content should require a warning, and it would be nearly impossible to write into policy without the issue becoming even more contentious than it already is. But perhaps policy shouldn’t be needed. Perhaps common sense and empathy should be enough. As publishers, we know full well that our authors are going to tackle difficult subjects, both in fiction and nonfiction. As we hear the millennial generation asking for a heads up on difficult subject matter, it makes sense to respect their opinions and pay attention to the way that society is evolving.


Publishing continues to become more integrated into the online world through ebooks, audiobooks, podcasts, and social media everyday, and so the world of trigger warnings and the world of publishing grow ever closer to colliding. It is not a difficult thing to do, adding an extra line to the beginning of the book. And it no more compromises the integrity of the book than the cover copy, which also hints at events occurring throughout. As Jack Halberstam mused, “The trigger warning could easily be read simply as a protocol proper to new media forms in the early twenty-first century (Halberstam 2017, 535).”


In no way am I arguing that books should not be challenging or controversial—rather, that a including a warning is an inclusive act that will make books more accessible to all readers. It is an act that will make readers feel safe, respected, validated, and listened to; an act that will build trust in our authors and in our businesses.


Of course, difficult topics should be addressed, talked about, and worked through. But this must be done in spaces that are truly safe and supportive.


It’s the least we can do.





American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.


Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). 2014. “Understanding the Impact of Trauma.” In Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series.


Conroy, Shana, and Adam Cotter. “Self-reported sexual assault in Canada, 2014.” Statistics Canada. July 11, 2017.


Haidt, Jonathan, and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic. September 2015.


Halberstam, Jack. “Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 535-542.


Hanlon, Aaron R. “The Trigger Warning Myth.” New Republic. August 14, 2015.


Levinovitz, Alan. “How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students.” The Atlantic. August 30, 2016.


Marrow, Linda. “Editing the Romance Novel.” Editors On Editing, edited by Gerald Gross, 347-355. New York: Grove Press.


Maycotte, Higinio. “Customer Lifetime Value — The Only Metric That Matters.” Forbes. August 25, 2015.


“Measuring violence against women: Statistical trends.” Juristat Article. Statistics Canada. Edited by Maire Sinha. February 25, 2014.


Motion Picture Association – Canada. “Canadian Home Video Rating System.” Accessed October 19, 2017.


Palmer, Tim. “Monash University trigger warning policy fires up free speech debate.” ABC News Australia. March 28, 2017.


Pettigrew, Todd. “Why ‘trigger warning’ policies miss the mark.” Maclean’s. April 24, 2014.


“Prevalence and severity of violence against women.” Statistics Canada. Accessed on October 20, 2017.


Rae, Logan. “Re-focusing the debate on trigger warnings: Privilege, trauma, and disability in the classroom.” First Amendment Studies, 50, no. 2 (September 28, 2016): 95-102,


“Simple Facts about Traumatic Stress and PTSD.” Canadian Psychological Association. Accessed October 20, 2017.


Smith, Kathleen. “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress.” Monitor on Psychology 45, no. 7 (July/August 2014): 58.


Vingiano, Ali.“How The “Trigger Warning” Took Over The Internet.” Buzzfeed News. May 5, 2014.


“Violence Against Women Survey.” Statistics Canada. June 30, 1994.


There is a terrific quote in Rowland Lorimer’s Ultra Libris, which, modified for this essay, goes like:


A press is not founded… out of a desire to process manuscripts and bring them to market…. Neither is it usual to found a press solely to produce bestsellers or to make pots of money. [….] For the most part, presses are founded… to advance civilization….


The argument of this essay is fundamentally structured around the idea that, not a press specifically, but Publishing exists to advance civilization.

There is another terrific quote, from Richard Nash’s What is the Business of Literature that states:


Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.”


The argument of this essay is also concerned with the relationship between publishing and literature.

But most importantly, the argument of this essay is about the definition of publishing and how that definition shapes society’s approach to the industry and the practice of publishing in general, and that by overhauling the definition, the industry can become more flexible to keep up with the changing social and technological needs of various societies.

It is important, therefore, to recognize and discard the old, antiquated definitions and connotations of publishing. Since the time of Gutenberg and his innovation with the invention of the printing press, printed copy has been the most efficient and powerful way to transmit information and ideas across space, culture, and time. The multiplication of such works as the bible brought mass ideological change across societies and still persists to this day. Thought structures of societies have changed and developed with the proliferation of literacy and literature. The book, and following suit the newspaper, became the anchor of society and the mediums through which the population could conceive of their shared experience in a shared culture. As such, books were highly regarded and signs of status and intellectual ability. Books became, to quote Lowrimer again, “a rallying point for social change” (Lowrimer, 41). It is no wonder, then, that the idea and historical precedence for book bans and book burnings exists as a literal and metaphorical means of censorship and political strongarming. Restricted from certain texts, people do not become indoctrinated into those texts’ lines of reasoning.

And so, for most of our recorded history, publishing has been, as the primary form of disseminating information and ideas, predominantly about the manufacturing and distribution of books and other written texts (pamphlets, newspapers). Can we be blamed for so strongly associating the word ‘publishing’ with the physical book we can hold and smell and admire?

The internet was the biggest revolution in information distribution since the printing press because, now with digital technologies, texts can be disseminated without actually being manufactured in a physical format that requires physical distribution. Suddenly, ideas can be transferred in milliseconds, and responding ideas can come in a matter of minutes.

With this new technology in place, and the continuous and rapid change this technology is undergoing, the old idea of publishing cannot survive and a new idea of publishing must be created.

A search for a modern definition of publishing (which is different from an understanding of publishing) shows conflicting ideas from various sources. defines Publishing simply as “the activities or business of a publisher, especially of books or periodicals.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, information, musical scores or sometimes recordings, or art.”

This is a very narrow and restrictive view of publishing as it puts an emphasis on the business of the process, that it is an economy-driven industry (which isn’t entirely untrue, but does not capture the full scale of the act of publishing). Most publishing is not business driven.

The word, Publish, in that form, Publishing, for some reason, distinctly carries the connotational baggage of the Publishing Business1. But publishing in itself is not a business – rather, it is an action. An action that is utilized in all businesses, all industries, and essentially all facets of public society.

The infinitive form of the word, To Publish, is defined, in the Cambridge Dictionary as “mak[ing] information available to people, especially in a book, magazine, or newspaper, or to produce and sell a book, magazine, or newspaper.” Unfortunately, this still holds the attachment of business and a press. Merriam-Webster dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as: “to make generally known” and “to make public announcement of” and “to disseminate to the public” and “to produce or release for distribution. (specifically print)” Essentially, publicizing something, and to release and spread a tangible state of information and ideas through the public.

I would, however, argue that the strongest definition of publishing I have found, the one that can be carried over into any new social and technological landscape, is in the UK’s government website and is stated simply:


Publishing means making information available to the public.


There is, however, no singular form of Public, and where this definition fails is in specifying the multiplicity of publics, which are groups of people formed by the shared experience of having been exposed to and observed the same text (Warner). This definition excels in its simplicity, though, and keeps open to interpretation how the information is made available to a public, which is essential as more ways of delivering information are proliferating thanks to the digital age.

To refer to the opening quote again, a press is founded to advance civilization. However, more correctly, publishing is the action and method used to advance civilization, and a press is only one manifestation of this action. Simply making information available is not good enough to achieve that end, as it will be completely missed and left unobserved if that information, once made available, is not pushed to engagement with a public. And so it is not just making it available, but actively disseminating that information to a public that is required, in this new age of an overcrowded information market, of a publisher.

But if publishing is simply an act, what role does the publisher play? In the past, publishers were the ones with the technology – the printing press. Nowadays, the technology is so readily available to the common person that the phenomenon of self-publishing has come to pass – inadvertently creating a need for the term Traditional Publishing. So where does the traditional publisher sit in this landscape? First, the word traditional needs to be dropped because it is a misdirection. As stated earlier, publishers need to discard of the old, traditional definition of publishing to make way for a new one. But that aside, the publisher as an agency must serve another purpose if the author of an idea now has the means to publish their own text2.

The publisher’s advantage is in the understanding of and established infrastructure through which to publish. In the analogue world, this is an elaborate, system involving printing, warehousing, shipping, and storefronts. In the digital world, this takes the shape of directing a public’s attention to digital publications. This works through algorithm (amazon’s “people who bought also bought”; youtube’s suggested videos based on interests and viewing history) and direct announcement (social media announcing and linking to internet publications; podcasts advertising other podcasts within the same network during an episode) in which the existing infrastructure is an existing following3. For both analogue and digital spheres, the publisher will already, or will aim to, have an established grasp on the social connections and marketing avenues that will allow the publisher to push the information to publics.

The final concept of publishing I will present is that it is not a way for one creator of a text to impose their information and ideas onto a public; rather, it is, ultimately, a means of allowing collaboration of ideas and information to build off each other over time and generate knowledge and understanding within publics, with the end result of playing a part in social, cultural, and political change. By being published, any information is automatically entering a public discourse. Individuals of the public will prepare ideas and information to be published to the same public as a direct commentary or development of the previously published and circulated text. A good example of this, pre-digital age, is seen in the science fiction realm, where author Samuel Delaney wrote the novel Triton as a direct response to author Ursula LeGuinn’s novel The Dispossessed. LeGuinn’s novel is subtitled as “an ambiguous utopia” and Delaney’s novel, published a year later and created for the same public as LeGuinn’s, carried the subtitle “an ambiguous heterotopia.” (Walton). This shows that, even with the idea of traditional publishing, publics are automatically going to create public discrouse, and publishing, and the publisher, is the means for them to achieve it. Without publishing, this “literary conversation” and development of idea from one author to another would not have existed.

In the academic realm this is especially prevalent with new editions of textbooks constantly being released, or new research theses being born of older research publications. And even more referential than an academic paper’s bibliography is the digital publishing sphere which allows for two of the most powerful forms of information development: intertextuality (publications linking directly to referred publications within the text), and forums (direct feedback and conversation on the publication itself).

It becomes clear, then, that publishing in the traditional sense of printing a book and selling it to market is no longer an appropriate connotation of the term. Sure, historical precedence has driven Nash’s association of publishing with “business of literature” into the public mind, but new technology brings a new way of gathering and growing information, and publishing in this new landscape needs to err less on the side of business and more on the side of “the means of public discourse.”  Publishing is the dissemination of ideas and information to a public, and it achieves this by creating or finding a public, actively pushing the information to that public, and allowing that public to continually build off that information and grow ideas. It is through these principles that a publisher must function, regardless of the medium (print books, digital recordings) and the format, or document, it distributes that information, or text, in.






1Refer again to the quoted section of Nash’s What is the Business of Literature: Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.”



2Note that by “text” I am referring to Brown and Duguid’s definition of it in The Social Life of Documents, in that it is the content of a document, which can take on any fixed-state form including book, film, and music recording.


3For a more comprehensive overview of electronic publishing, refer to Lancaster’s The Evolution of Electronic Publishing (




Works Cited


Brown, John and Paul Duguid. “The Social Life of Documents.” 1996. Accessed October 1, 2017.


Grossman, Lev. “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature.” Time Magazine. January 21, 2009. Accessed October 1, 2017.


Lancaster, Frederick Wilfrid. “The evolution of electronic publishing.” (1995).


Lorimer, Rowland. “Ultra Libris: Policy, Technology, and the Creative Economy of Book Publishing in Canada.” ECW Press. 2012.


Nash, Richard. “What is the Business of Literature?” VQR spring 2013 Vol. 89, Issue 2.


National Archives, UK. Accessed October 1, 2017.


Walton, Jo. “Heterotopian Choices: Samuel R. Delany’s Triton.” August 17, 2008. Accessed October 1, 2017.


Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp. 413-425. November 2002.


Wershler, Darren. “The Ethically Incomplete Editor.” Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada, pp. 225-238. 2006.



Women at Work

I have heard from many people that publishing is a female trade: there are many more women working in this industry than their male counterparts. This is certainly true for Simon Fraser University’s Master of Publishing program. Most of the cohorts over the years have been comprised mostly—or entirely—of women. So why exactly is it so difficult for women to reach the top in a seemingly female-dominated industry? And, with so many female editors, why is it still so hard for women to get published? It is obvious to me that, with such an abundance of females swarming the business, it really is in our hands to push ourselves to the forefront, or at least a little closer to it.

Let’s begin by examining the extent of the role women actually play in publishing. In 2015, Lee & Low Books conducted what they call a “Diversity Baseline Survey,” which analyzed the breakdown of race, gender, orientation, and disability in the North American publishing industry. What they found was that 78% of the industry overall is dominated by cisgendered women. The surveyors break their numbers down further, identifying that women outnumber men in editorial, sales, and marketing and publicity departments by 54-69% (Low 2016). It is obvious that women have the numbers in this business, and we should be able to run the show. However, Lee & Low Books’ survey also covered the number of cisgendered women in executive positions; this percentage is a lot lower at 59%. Of course, that is still higher than the male executives, but let’s keep in mind that the industry is overrun with women in all other departments. It logically follows that with so many women along the ladder, the top rung would be occupied by a similar percentage of ladies. In my research I came across the term pink ghetto, which refers to a job dominated by women who have little chance of moving up. By this definition, the publishing industry certainly is a pink ghetto. Judy Brunsek, vice-president of sales and marketing at HarperCollins, offers some insight into what might happen if women were more present in executive committees. She believes “typically women will be much more willing to discuss things, and take various issues and come to a consensus, while making sure that all the pros and cons are tabled,” and that “quite frankly … women don’t shy away from saying the bad stuff too.” Cynthia Good, president of Penguin Canada, added “emotional intelligence—I think that’s what we have. I think we’re able to look at larger pictures. I think that women look at implications, and the ways the ripples of decision-making work out” (Hussey et al. 1999). Obviously women are well-equipped for these directorial roles, but we still aren’t filling them.


Laura Meyer, chief information officer at HarperCollins UK, believes the solution is to push for what we want, and what we deserve. She says “I am a big believer in your career being your own responsibility. It is looking at how you can get to your goals. Who do you need to get advice from? What courses do you need?” (Wood & Shaffi 2015). Women aren’t getting these higher up positions because of sexism, it’s as simple as that. There is downward pressure from society in many facets including a general history of repression and patriarchy. Once we recognize this is happening we can fight against it, and work towards our industry goals. The problem will be solved once we all recognize talent and hard work for what it is, and not who is behind it. The hard part is figuring out the best method to achieve this unencumbered equality, which is, of course, a problem that has nipped at the heels of feminists for as long as feminism has existed.

While you work through that first item on the agenda, I will introduce a second problem: male authors. That is not to say male authors are a problem, just that there are so many of them running amok. This again is a product of—are you ready?—The patriarchy! American author slash literary critic Matthew Jakubowski believes the publishing industry favours men. He says “the result of this investment by publishers is that readers and literary critics are guided toward books by men. We become eager to be part of what’s promoted as big book news, more comfortable talking about a newly celebrated male author” (Flood 2014). In 2015, novelist Kamila Shamsie confirmed that only 40% of the books submitted to the Man Booker prize in the previous five years had been written by women. Shamsie sees no other reasoning for such a low female presence than sexism. “I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men it is fair literary judgment, while when women recommend books by women it is either a political position or woolly feminine judgment” (2015). So I guess men choosing men is unbiased, but women choosing women is furthering a radical feminist agenda

Now that we’re on the topic, let’s discuss the ones actually buying the books. Researchers Kathryn Zickuhr and Lee Rainie conducted a survey in 2013 that showed 82% of women had read a book in the past 12 months, while only 69% of men had done the same (2014). Something seems wrong here. There is a myriad of women behind the scenes publishing the books, which are eventually read by a mostly-female audience. Why do we keep publishing so many books written by men? Surely women want to read more women, right? My hypothesis is that since literature is so saturated with books written by men, statistically speaking, male books are more likely to win the prizes, and the publishers want to publish the books that win the prizes, and it turns into an endless cycle that pushes female writers further and further into the background.



Catherine Nichols is an author who conducted her own experiment in order to fight this system. When only two out of 50 agents were interested in her novel, she decided to submit it again, this time under a male pseudonym. This second submission yielded 17 out of 50 agent bites. “[‘George’] is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,” Nichols said. (Flood 2015). In this example, the sole variable is the gender of the author’s name, which allows us to conclude that it is gender alone that determines whether or not agents will predict a book to be successful. We can also deduce from this experiment that people believe male writing to be superior to that of a woman. This, I assure you, is unequivocal assumption.

“It’s not at all clear what it means to write ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman,’ but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women—or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise” writes author Francine Prose in her article “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are women writers really inferior?” (1998). According to Prose, we have a tendency to give hierarchical importance to subject matter according to the gender of its writer. “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ … This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop … ” (Woolf, qtd. in Prose 1998). “But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian. If, in the future, some weird cataclysm should scramble or erase all the names of authors from all the books in all the libraries, readers may have trouble … telling whether Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne were created by women or men. The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing” (Prose 1998). And so it should be. Our classification needs to be decided on literary merit, not on the sex of the author. Reform will happen when we decide to religiously adhere to what we value as good writing, and nothing more.



The publishing industry defies expectations. We are a group of women publishing books for women to read, and yet we have not figured out how to support women’s success within the business, be it by rising through the ranks or getting published ourselves. We have the numbers, we just need to figure out how to use our masses to our advantage. Feminism is stronger than ever, and I believe we have the means to accomplish great strides in this field. And who knows, maybe we fresh publishing graduates can help make a feminine difference in the world of publishing.

Works Cited

Flood, Alison. “‘Year of reading women’ declared for 2014.” The Guardian. January 22, 2014. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Flood, Alison. “Sexism in publishing: ‘My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me, Catherine’.” The Guardian. August 06, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Hussey, Valerie, Carol Toller, Cynthia Good, Nicole Brebner, and Judy Brunsek. “Taking the Next Step: Women Discuss Careers, Family and what it Takes to Get to the Top in Canadian Publishing.” Quill & Quire 65 (4): 12-13. April 1999. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Low, Jason T. “Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.” Lee & Low Blog. February 10, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Prose, Francine. “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are women writers really inferior?” Harper’s Magazine (June 1998): 61-70.

Scottbaiowulf. “Male writers writing female characters.” December 27, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Shamsie, Kamila. “Kamila Shamsie: let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation.” The Guardian. June 05, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Wood, Felicity, and Shaffi, Sarah. “Glass ceiling hinders women in the trade.” The Bookseller. February 13, 2015. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Zickuhr, Kathryn, and Lee Rainie. “A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. January 16, 2014. Accessed September 21, 2017.

As I am writing this essay, Katy Evan’s Racer went live on Amazon. I have been following the author’s social media promotion from the conception of the book; right from announcing the book, revealing the cover, teasing excerpts, pre-ordering and finally, the release day. She has a burgeoning group of close 70,000 followers on Facebook and close to 18,000 on Instagram. It’s been two days since the release of the book. It has already got close to 200 reviews on Amazon and just as many on goodreads. Her Facebook group, run by her fans, has close to 5000 members, including scores of bloggers, who are sharing and hyping about her book. The book is close to reaching ‘Top 100 paid’ in Kindle store and is already at #6 in Romance/Sports sub genre, which means she is selling high numbers. There is one detail though; Katy Evans is a self-published author.


Katy isn’t the only one riding this thrilling wave of digital publishing. Hundreds of self-published romance authors have managed to break into the market and establish a popular brand identity. Who are these authors?


Alison Baverstock, an associate professor in publishing at Kingston University, Surrey, said her research showed a clear gender split, with 65% of self-publishers being women and 35% men. Nearly two-thirds of all self-publishers are aged 41 to 60, with a further 27% aged over 61. Half are in full-time employment, 32% have a degree and 44% a higher degree (Brown 2014).


These authors—men and women, come from all walks of life and life experiences but have one thing in come—they have successfully bypassed the traditional publishing channels and incumbent middle men, after being turned down everywhere else in most cases, to reach their target audience. That is, kind of, priceless. Self-publishing has created a brand new, level playing field where romance authors are blooming unchecked. It’s a romantic wilderness.


Romance publishing, for long, has been a highly lucrative, but moderated genre of publishing. Romance has evolved. It has been the money-maker, albeit underrated, for the publishing industry. If we look at the romance publishing life-cycle to date, we’ll be able to ascertain that the innovation and content, in romance publishing, has been driven from the reader’s side. The publishing industry has been forever playing catch-up to the market demands. It could be the move from traditional ‘sweet romances’ produced by Harlequin for decades, to the uproar of spicier historical romances termed as the ‘bodice-rippers’, to the tsunami of 50 Shades of Grey, which singlehandedly revived the bookstore sales across the spectrum. The audience has been ahead of the publishers (Markert 1985). The content has reflected the path of self-awareness in women. According to best-selling author Jenny Crusie, ‘‘the romance industry is more responsive to reader feedback than any other genre … Romance novels do not determine what readers think; readers determine what romance novels get published” (Crusie 2007).


An editor is a hunter-gatherer—a person who scrounges through the slush piles, networks with agents, actively looks for writers and ultimately gives the publishers the actual content to publish. This is a vital role. The editors are the gatekeepers. They keep track of the market’s wants and needs and calibrate their searches accordingly (Williams 1993). One of the reasons that romance has remained relevant in the era of globalization is that romance publishers have shown a unique willingness to diversify their offerings, along with a stalwart refusal to flinch away from social, cultural and demographic change (Tapper 2014).


The romance market is a different ball-game altogether; unlike other genres of publishing. It’s a demand driven market. Where an average American reads about 12 books a year, a romance reader devours about 15 books a month. That figure alone, should give you a pause. To put things into perspective, according to the Romance Writers of America’s annual report, the estimated total annual romance sales amount to $1.08 billion. Romance novel share of the U.S. fiction market is 34%, of which, eBooks is 61%, Mass-market paperback is 26%, Trade paperback is 11% and Hardcover is 1.4% of the pie. The readership constitutes 84% female and 16% male (RWA 2015).


You can love self-publishing or doubt it, but you cannot ignore it. The numbers speak for themselves. Kim & Mauborgne conducted a study of 150 strategic moves spanning more than a hundred years and thirty industries and argue that companies can succeed by creating blue oceans of uncontested market space, as opposed to red oceans where competitors fight for dominance, the analogy being that an ocean full of vicious competition turns red with blood (W. Chan Kim 2005). Traditional publishing has been a red ocean for long, primarily because of the checked flow of content and the restriction on volume.


Digital publishing, by the way of its business model, has opened the doors to blue oceans, where independent writers could get their books to the intended audience without having to go through the traditional distribution network. Considering the behemoth size of the romance field and the new wave of self-published or indie authors, the editors today have a new avenue to find their next big find. These relatively unknown authors, who do respectable amount of business and have a ready-made following are the perfect candidates for the traditional model of romance publishing.


The hunter-gatherers in the romance publishing have finally caught up the insurgence of self-published contemporary romance, YA romance and adult fiction. Scores of self-published authors have been signed up by publishers to capitalize on the ready-made market. To find the next best-seller, maybe the editors need to analyze Amazon’s sales data (how much ever it is). The publishers have been cognizant of the changes. Harlequin Mills and Boon (HMB) ventured into a self-publishing imprint in 2009, but received severe flack from the publishing world for exploiting unsuspecting writers, as they charged ‘for services’. It was argued that what HMB were offering was NOT self-publishing but vanity publishing (Friedman 2009). Following the furor, HMB changed the name of the venture from Harlequin Horizons to DellArte press (Gardner 2009). But that too died a slow death over the following 4-5 years.


Jane Friedman argued, “Harlequin is clearly at an advanced stage of considering how it will evolve—or devolve, considering on your perspective. But most writers and writer organizations (and publishers) have NOT grappled with these questions yet. Publishing has often been slowest to change and adapt of all industries. Some argue Harlequin should’ve been better prepared and planned more strategically to respond to the criticisms that would arise. But when you’ve already moved on, like Harlequin—and are seeking solutions—it’s tough to backtrack to the mindset of those people who are stunned, angry, and indignant, and can’t even conceive of adaptation” (Friedman 2009).


Friedman also quoted Shatzkin in her blog post.


A friend of mine in the financial business wrote a book 20 years ago and wanted to get an agent to sell it. He knew the advance would be low, but he also knew the book would add credibility to his business. He wanted it sold. An agent told him that the agency only handled books on which they thought the advance would be $25,000 or more, yielding a commission of $3,750 at the normal 15%. This friend told the agent, take the first $3,750. The agent took the book, sold it for $6,000, and everybody was happy. This kind of arrangement, as well as others where the agent actually charges a fee for helping an author manage self-publishing options, are going to have to become more common in the future. Let’s not be too judgmental about the pioneering agents who change the paradigm. (Shatzkin 2009)


This is tricky. Because the market is flooded with self-publishing options for budding writers. Author Solutions is well-known for this. But the publishing industry is not quite ready to give their stamp of validation to the party crashers—the self-publishing authors. HMB tried to bridge the gap between the two forms publishing, but weren’t successful. They have, since then, launched Carina Press, a digital-first publishing platform, where they publish new authors in digital format and later go into print.


It ought to be simple; this amalgamation between print and digital platforms; this meeting of hunter-gatherers and the romantic wilderness. It isn’t.


Even though the scenario is well laid out, the integration between the two isn’t as simple. Consider this: Author Marie Force has 50 titles in her backlist—30 titles self-published and 20 titles with traditional publishers. She took her early works to numerous publishers, got published in 2008 (very small release) and made no waves. Around 2010, she took the plunge into the self-publishing and has been swimming strong, since. She prices her books between $4.99 and $6.99. She is consistently ranked in the Top 100 best-selling authors on Amazon and does decent business in print. But nothing compares to her returns on Amazon. She is digitally present in a market that primarily reads eBooks. Also, Author Kristen Ashley, who routinely tops the Amazon charts. She has the attention of her audience and even managed to get her books into Wal-Mart, which is no small feat. She has small team handling her editing, design and PR. Her focus is solely on writing. These authors also have presence on Kobo, iBooks and Createspace. (Observer and Dale 2016)


Now consider the pricing model of these self-published books. Most self-published works are priced between $2.99 and $6.99, with most authors pricing the earlier books low and progressively going higher as a series evolves. Collectively, these authors are looking at a $30 proposition in each customer (assuming it’s a 5 book series). It makes sense to reel in the reader early on with lower prices. Romance readers are extremely price sensitive, so the authors can only play around so much.


Now consider the traditional publishing pricing. Hard covers are priced at $25, paperbacks at $14 and eBooks at $9.99 (averages). There has been a raging discussion about publishers increasing the rates of the eBooks, which in turn has hampered them from making any headway into the digital market, although it has led to the resurgence in print sales. Even if successful self-published authors wanted to go through traditional publisher, there is no room for potential agreement when it comes to pricing. The readers will not pay $9.99, if they know they can get comparable books for less. This has been a key deciding factor for many authors, who don’t see merit in publishing only through traditional methods.


Also, the traditional model of publishing allows for maximum 15% royalties for the author, as opposed to 70% they earn when publishing with Amazon. That is a big chasm to fill. So what does it mean for the hunter-gatherers and the blooming romantics?


Traditional publishing and self-publishing are not mutually exclusive. It would be erroneous to think that in the current market you can do either-or. Publishing is transforming organically, hence, everything is changing. Digital and print publishing, as we know it, are transmogrifying. The market is turning a new leaf. Although, the market is more dynamic and price sensitive; the good news is—there is plenty of demand.


Publishers have an incentive for hunting in the self-publishing field, for newer, yet tried and tested content to meet the high demand of the romance readers. It would be wise to skim the top, but  focus on the next tier of writers who are on the verge of breaking out in the market. On the other hand, the self-publishing segment can gain more ground with print sales. Even though it is a digital market, 30% of readers still read print, and only print. There is no other way of reaching these people, but through traditional publishing.


Ultimately, publishing industry needs new talent and the authors need the validation that can be achieved only through traditional forms of publishing. It could be a win-win situation, but only if the wheels of publishing can align. As is the nature of business, in due time, it always re-calibrates itself. It would be interesting to see how this unfolds.


Anumeha Gokhale

Master of Publishing, Fall 2017

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver

Works Cited

Brown, Maggie. The Guardian. 11 9, 2014. (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Crusie, Jenny. 04 14, 2007. (accessed 09 25, 2017).

Friedman, Jane. Writer’s Digest. 11 03, 2009. (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Gardner, Suzzane. Quill & Quire. 11 26, 2009. (accessed 09 23, 2017).

Markert, John. “Romance Publishing And The Production Of culture.” Poetics Vol.14(1), 1985: 69-93.

Observer, The, and Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. (accessed 09 28, 2017).

RWA. Romance Writers of America – Romance Statistics. 2015. (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Shatzkin, Mike. The Idea Logical Company. 06 29, 2009. (accessed 09 26, 2017).

Tapper, Olivia. “Romance and Innovation in Twenty-First Century.” Publishing Research Quarterly 30, no. 2 , 2014: 249-59.

The Observer, Brady Dale. Titans of Kindle. 03 16, 2016. (accessed 09 28, 2017).

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture. New York: Penguin, 2012.

  1. Chan Kim, Renée Mauborgne. Blue Ocean Strategy. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press, 2005.

Williams, Alan D. “Who is an Editor?” In Editors on Editing, by Gerald Gross, 3-9. New York: Grove Press, 1993.



        Diversity has always been a big issue in this world, whether in a business or in a community. This thought didn’t occur to me until I was sitting in my editing class, scanning around the room and I thought, “Wow, most of my classmates are women .. and white.” They –my classmates are gonna be few of the many people that will enter the industry in the near future and they do fit to the statement : white women rule the publishing industry. Coming from the non-white pool, I then realized that growing up, most of the books I read are surprisingly White : white characters, white culture, even white sayings. Furthermore, the presence of most books feel “feminine”, a sign that they are specifically targeted for women.

A survey done by children’s book publisher Lee & Low in 2016 shows that 78% of the industry overall are female and 79% of them are Caucasian while just 4% are black, 7% are Asian, 6% are Hispanic, and less than 5% are Native American, Middle Eastern, or biracial. Lee & Low sent more than 13,000 surveys to publishing employees in North America –which got a response rate of 25% including from the Big Five like Penguin Random House and MacMillan and the results are as follow :


Data : Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey


Lee & Low’s survey also shows that the proportion of books that is considered “multicultural” are as low as 10% for the past 18 years. This number raises concerns, as the sound from the people of color will not be heard if the acquisition editor keeps cultivating contents and authors that fit their interest; the white interest. Lack representation of multicultural people also limits innovation in this industry as publishers keep publishing books with the same tone, same approach, same setting, same culture, and same traits over and over again. Uniformity does not breed innovation and great minds think differently. Variety is needed to succeed, even in the industry where white-American culture is considered “the culture” of each published materials. Culture also affects on why people of color see the publishing industry as less appealing than any other industries. They grew up with a doctrine that they should get a practical job –like accountant, lawyer or doctor to get paid well. Being an author or an editor is unheard of and they will not take the risk of jumping into the business that does not fit the criteria.

Although few of publishing houses have thrown efforts to launch the diversity initiative, it still apparents that the industry is still blindingly white. Hachette for example, has founded a diversity committee in 2014 to improve its hiring and retention of diverse candidates. They also said that minimum 50% of its intern pool is made up of diversed candidate. Simon & Schuster had also held an internship class in 2015 which ranged from 66% to 80% diverse. Penguin Random House also initiates supports for students writing contest at “economically and ethnically diverse” New York City high schools.

Lack of male representation has also become a problem in the publishing industry. Men are generally dictated to become financially able and the industry has not exactly given in to that stereotype.  Low wages and the impracticality of the job have no appeal for men, especially for the entry-level jobs. Dr. Mary Gatta, a professor in the department of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University said that what discouraging men from taking jobs at publishing is because when a certain field is “gendered” like nurse and plumber, it becomes associated with the dominant sex in the jobs and very often the other sex voluntarily stays away.

It is also understandable that an industry should be run by people who represent most audience and in this case, the biggest audience for books are women. It does not matter if the people running the business are female or male, because they will likely both struggle with getting men and boys to read. Lindy Hess, director of the graduate Columbia Publishing Course also said that certain industry, like publishing, has been traditionally more open to women, mostly because of the assumption that women read more than men. Same thing goes with most publishing programs and courses. David Unger, heads of CUNY’s program, said that in the summer of 2009, only two of 12 students were men, but in the spring of 2010 three of eight students were men. This most likely to happen because the job market are getting more competitive, especially for positions in finance and technology, thus making more men consider publishing as their choosing. However, that doesn’t mean that publishing will get more diverse in the following years. It is still something to think about because publishing industry can not be compared with other industries like nursing or plumbing, as publishing has wider range of audience which mainly rely on the use of creative mind. Women and men see the world differently, so it is much healthier for the industry to have more sets of different minds in order to reach broader audiences and to represent those who might need representation, even if they only exist in the smallest percentage of the books population.

In another words, does the industry really need the diversity? Yes, it does. Book publishing is a creative industry and creativity does not come in one set of mind only. Do you want to publish a book about what men like in sex? Then ask the men! Do you want to publish a book about Asian culture? Then ask the Asian! Generalization of readers are not the solution. Readers also have to be more vocal about what they want to read and the publisher should be more active on making it happen.  It is not always about following what is always be, but what is supposed to be.



Works Cited :


Anderson, Porter. August 1, 2017. “Sophie de Closets on Women in Publishing : ‘What Troubles Me Is the Lack of Men.” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Kean, Danuta. May 11, 2017. “Are things getting worse for women in publishing?” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Deahl, Rachel. March 11, 2016, “Why Publishing Is So White.” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Caplan-Bricker, Nora. February 1, 2016. “New Survey Confirms Straight White Women’s Domination of Book Publishing.” Accessed September 20, 2017.



Howard, Kait. February 1, 2016. “White women run publishing?” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Wang, Amy. January 28, 2016. “While business and politics are ruled by straight white men, book publishing is ruled by straight white women.” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Sturgeon, Jonathon. January 28, 2016. “Book Publishing Is Almost as White as the Oscars.” Accessed September 20, 2017.


Young Lee, Paula. January 26, 2016. “White women of publishing : New survey shows a lack of diversity behind the scenes in book world.” Accessed September 20, 2017.



Deahl, Rachel. September 20, 2010. “Where the boys are not.” Accessed September 20, 2017.


The Canadian publishing market has a very interesting conflict at the heart it’s funding and pricing. It is very clear from my time as an mPub student, that publishing houses are not making enough selling books. One reason, and possibly a very important one, is because of how books are priced. Currently in Canada and America, books are priced according to the free market, which means booksellers can sell books at whatever price they see fit (after paying the publishers 50% of the retail price). Many countries in Europe including Spain, Austria, France and Germany have fixed pricing, and so booksellers set the price of their books and booksellers are required to sell them at this price. In Canada, publishers receive government funding to create books, but since they are still subject to the free market system, books are valued at the price that is given to them by sellers rather than by the publishers who make them causing a discrepancy between their value as it is deemed by the government and how sellers, and in turn, buyers value them. Canada is in a unique spot (as it has been for many years) between the United States model and the European model in regards to their funding and the pricing and selling of books. But is this the best way for the Canadian publishing industry? Let’s explore.


First, it is important to consider how Canada currently prices books. There are many factors that should contribute to the cost of the book, or so you would think considering every book is slightly different in content, form, design, and production. Sadly, this is not the case. Publishing houses are entirely reliant on comparative titles to price books. That means, look for a few books, like your book, see how they are priced and do around the same. Non-fiction is priced higher than fiction, for no other reason than pre-established norms (“How to Set the Retail Price of Your Book”). There is no true rhyme or reason to it. It has very little to do with the item itself (page quality, count, variety of ink), and instead has everything to do with how buyers price compare. Since price is determined by other books, it would be difficult for publishers to break the mold. If they price a book to low, they will get sales but will also have difficulty making a profit, and if they price to high, buyers might pick the book like it that they can get cheaper. Knowing how books are priced can help publishers looks at the models around book buying and pricing and can inform decisions they make in future.


So how does pricing work in other countries? If we look to Europe, there is a very different system in place regarding pricing, as they have fixed prices meaning no discount can be added. Many independent bookstores have closed their doors in free market countries because of not being able to competitively sell or offer discounts like bigger stores can do (Nakayama). In a fixed price market, there is more of an attachment to the store since you are not bargain hunting, but instead looking to what the store can provide as an experience (Mitchell). Having fixed pricing allows bookstores to also ensure they don’t lose funds when discounting a book and compete with other stores fairly (Blanche). Furthermore, since best sellers are not heavily discounted, there is less of a phenomenon behind their rapid and sky-rocketing sales. Best-sellers made up 1.7% of the market in France in 2005, whereas in the U.K. they were 16% of the market sales (Blanche).  Publishers also benefit from this system since they can create work that will be treated the same as all other works, since there will be no discount offered to encourage sales of particular books. Also, it is important to help independent bookstores since they are more likely to hand-sell a book to consumers.


Fixed pricing also has many disadvantages that can affect sales and the creation of books. By offering discounts you are potentially encouraging someone who would not have initially bought the book to do so. In the world of the internet, it is easier and in some cases cheaper to buy from another country that does not have price fixing and therefore renders fixed pricing moot (Stone). Also, price fixing is considered a “dirty” idea because it doesn’t allow the competition for more efficient booksellers that have more money and use price competition to increase their share in the market (Towse). Also, this potentially could reduce the incentive of booksellers to improve their book titles or aim to increase profitability. A lack of competition between publishers could lead to a lack of effort.


When we look to the United States, we can see the free market at work. In a free market, there is the expectation that the customer is first. Prices have to be competitive to encourage the customer to spend and by having offering discounts it gives the customer more freedom to choose how much they want to spend (Agarwal). Also by being competitive, it encourages publishing houses to improve their products and services (Towse 239). They have to study trends to meet customer needs and publish the books that people want to read. Quality has to be high to compete. The free market has been in place for many years in Canada and it is something we can easily recognize as consumers.


There are also many disadvantages of a free market for publishers. For smaller publishers, it is almost impossible to compete with bigger names who have a more flexible budget. They are not able to promote their books like one of the “big six” and therefore can barely break into the very competitive sales space. Therefore a book that is promoted well is likely to have a lower print cost meaning the publishers can make more money from it. Also, the use of data to ensure you get sales is problematic in book publishing, especially with smaller companies who cannot afford to publish every book that they come across. If publishers only paid attention to data, there are many books that would not get published, simply because they have not been audience tested. In a free market system, where your books should be selected to be competitive, it is difficult to image that counter-culture books would get made without the support of the government. Furthermore, the main argument for fixed pricing is that books are “both economic and cultural assets” and it is important to ensure they are protected and so are the publishers that create them (Stockman 54). In France, one of the major proponents of the fixed price system, they classify the book as an “essential good” (Marosevic). In a free market system, it is very clear that books are an item like any other that must compete to be bought, which is not how they are viewed in a fixed price system.


It is also important to note that in countries with fixed prices, there is also a lot of government funding given to publishers and writers to continue serving this cultural good. In Canada, we also have a lot of government grants for publishers to encourage creation, but is this a good idea in a free market?  In Matt Barnes’ paper, “Book pricing: publisher, vendor and library perspective” he defines price, which is “value or worth”. When it comes to books, value is much harder to place, but if we constantly discount and allow for books to be devalued through price reductions, it gives the appearance that it is not as worthy of its cost (Barnes 88). The money that is being put into books still does not provide enough to help them compete in the huge market, as they usually have very small marketing budgets, and ultimately helps the books sellers more than the publishers who continue to make a profit and define the value (both monetary and cultural) of the book. You could also argue that discounting books does put it into the hands of more people, but there is this constant expectation that we are paying more than we need to if the book is full price rather than just accepting the price as necessary because of what it is providing.


Sadly, there are many factors that would complicate switching to a fixed price system in Canada. No matter where you are, online shopping companies, especially Amazon has complicated fixed pricing. In Susan Stone’s article on the digital book market’s growth in Germany, she interviews a book seller who states, “Sellers like Amazon have other possibilities to offer certain titles at discounts as promotional items, and to attract customers. That’s something we just can’t do, it’s beyond us.” This has drastically changed their sales in English language books as Amazon sells them cheaper. They still have to abide by the fixed price in the country, and in the German shop of Amazon, but some people are also looking for the convenience and would be willing to buy outside of the country for the delivery and cheaper deals (Stone).  There are ways that countries have tried to fight this cross-border dealing. In France, they passed a law so that Amazon and other sites like it could not offer free shipping in combination with a 5% discount as a to curb people buying through them (Marosevic). Amazon retaliated by offering 1 cent shipping, proving once again that big business is the best business. Still, it is encouraging that laws would be passed to combat buying with Amazon and encouraging small business spending.


Amazon also doesn’t do any of the promotion around book-selling unlike more independent chains or official bookstores. By having a location, they can host readings, encourage hand-selling of books, and offer an easy space for browsing (unlike the tailor-made lists you receive from Amazon). Stacey Mitchell states “In the absence of fixed prices, discounters, including Amazon and big supermarket chains, can “free ride” on these services, benefitting from the increased demand for books, but not sharing the costs. Bookstores then lose market share and revenue, and decline in number. I don’t believe that Amazon is an evil corporation, but it has certainly made business for publishers extremely difficult. Beyond what I previously mentioned and their dropping of prices which changes the expectations of the cost of books, they are a retailer that has pushed publishers to sell to them at an insanely steep discount (Mitchell). The prices they set have become the norm and so to compete, other sellers have had to match or provide a unique experience.


Beyond booksellers, the other option that publishers have used is to raise the price of the books initially to make more a of profit. The price of books has grown considerably over the years, and not as a natural cause of inflation (Dreher). Due to retailers taking around 50% and returns, it is necessary to have the cost of the book be high to recoup expenses.  As stated in Christopher Dreher’s comprehensive article “Why do books cost so much?” “discounting has made it easier for book prices to creep upward while maintaining the illusion that consumers are getting the books inexpensively”. Publishers are currently maintaining to price relatively high (in comparison to countries with fixed pricing) to make a profit on books that do sell, considering how little they make off their list generally. Vendors look at the list price to decide what discount they will ask for (Barnes). By having higher prices, publishers are more likely to make money, but this does discourage some people from buying. As Dreher states, people are not keen to spend the money. His interview with a supervisor at a bookseller stated, “No matter what the prices are, they say it’s too expensive. The first thing they ask about is price, and the reactions range from a grunt to an outright whine.” Considering the reaction booksellers get from the price of the books, it is probably not the best option to raise prices further.


So what if we lower prices? In Breher’s article, he interviews Michael Cader, the creator of Publisher’s Lunch, who argues that prices should come down since there is more competition out there as more books are printed every year. There are new technological shifts, like print-on-demand, that can improve book production costs by eliminating inventory, shipping, returns and markups by sellers, thus putting money back into the hands of the author. Most book sales currently are on the lower end as most big businesses end up selling books when they are discounted. Lower prices in the current free market are the only way to actually compete and encourage buying, but it has not been the most effective system for publishers.


So, as it currently stands, Canada operates under a free market, but receives funding as if it were a fixed pricing system. The government deems it important to produce the literature and have it readily available, but makes very little effort to encourage its value through its cost. With fixed pricing of books, there is a possibility that both publishers and booksellers could find more stability and ultimately provide customers with a different experience, either through the expectations of a bookstore or through what is being published. Considering the passion in the industry to create meaningful works, despite the low pay, I doubt they would ultimately give up and stop creating good work, simply because they don’t need to cater to audiences in the same way. This also does not eliminate library sales for people who cannot afford books without discounts. The challenges that Amazon presents will still be an issue, but as it stands, they are currently still a huge competitor and would be taking certain sales regardless. The government also would be able to pass legislature to help protect prices, like France has done. Fixed prices also remove the challenges of raising or lower prices since once a price is set, people will be willing to spend and accept that cost. It also could be a lower cost than the current averages that exist. I’m not certain about how the Canadian government views price-fixing (since everywhere I’ve looked finds it extremely shady) and so it might be met with some scrutiny initially, but ultimately it could help the industry thrive and protect more publishers.


In conclusion, I believe Canada could benefit by looking to how other systems price their books since the market as it currently stands does not seem to be helping publishers or booksellers. Publishing as an industry is very reliant on all parts functioning well to thrive. Certainly it is difficult to gauge whether fixed pricing is the way to go, but it has benefited other countries that receive government funding to survive, because it contributes to the culture of a country.  With fixed pricing, smaller Canadian booksellers could fairly compete with companies like Amazon and Chapters Indigo, as could the publishers themselves. If books are priced the same across the board, your loyalty is to who is putting it out there not to whoever offers the best deal.



Works Cited

Agarwal, Prateek. “Free Market: Advantages & Disadvantages.” Intelligent Economist. N.p., 25 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Barnes, Matt, Jon Clayborne, and Suzy Szasz Palmer. “Book Pricing: Publisher, Vendor, and Library Perspectives.” Emerald (2005): 87-91. Emerald Insight. Emerald Group Publishing Ltd. Web.

Blache, Catherine. “Why Fixed Book Price Is Essential for Real Competition.” International Publishers Association. International Publishers Association, 16 Jan. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Dreher, Christopher. “Why Do Books Cost so Much?” Salon. 03 Dec. 2002. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

“How to Set the Retail Price of Your Book.” Set The Right Retail Price to Sell Your Books Competitively. Millcity Press, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Marosevic, Zeljka. “France Passes Anti-Amazon Law.” Melville House Books. N.p., 27 June 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Mitchell, Stacey. “Why Publishers, Not Amazon, Should Set Book Prices.” Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 23 June 2011. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Nakayama, Moè. “For What It’s Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets.” Publishing Trendsetter. N.p., 6 May 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Stockmann, Doris. “Free or Fixed Prices on Books – Patterns of Book Pricing in Europe.” Javnost – The Public 11.4 (2004): 49-63. Web.

Stone, Susan. “Digital Wave Threatens Germany’s Fixed-price Book World.” DW. Ed. Sam Edmonds. N.p., 29 May 2010. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Towse, Ruth. A Handbook of Cultural Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003. Print.

When publishers rejoice at the “failure” of the digital market, they aren’t actually celebrating the preservation of print: they’re reacting to the preservation of their market share as compared to the self-published industry. But print isn’t safe from the rise of the indie market, and it’s important for publishers to be prepared to compete where they have for so long dominated.


When tablets and the modern electronic book hit the publishing scene a decade ago, industry professionals suggested that ebooks sales would take a substantial share of the market (some claimed at least 50% by 2014).1 What they didn’t predict was that more than half of that new market would be dominated by the independent and self-publishing industry (hereafter referred to as the indie market).

The ways in which the traditional industry looks at data and the trends that data predicts has grown complicated. However, one thing is clear: digital is the purview of the indie market, and traditional publishers are struggling to maintain their market share, both in unit sales and revenue.

It’s no wonder then that, since early 2016, articles heralding the return of print sales and the decline of the ebook have given publishers and booksellers alike a reason to celebrate. With ebooks taking up only 18% of the total publishing market in Canada2 and a stagnant 23% in America,3 a market trend that suggests a worldwide return to print would mean publishers could blame an under-performing digital market as a reason to go back to doing what they’ve always been good at: publishing print books. Fortune Magazine’s digital editor, Andrew Nusca, relates some of why the traditional publishing industry celebrated the leveling out of the ebook market at the beginning of 2015:


Between 2008 and 2010, e-book sales skyrocketed 1,260%—a sign that the platform had matured and also a sign that it hadn’t quite gained traction up to that point. Amazon began shipping Kindles like mad. Barnes & Noble threw its hat into the e-reader ring. (A fateful decision, it turned out.) Print sales (especially for cheap paperbacks) slipped, bookstores large and small—but especially large—began to close up shop, and the entire publishing business was left shaking. A reprieve from that narrative is obviously welcome if you’re in the book business.4


Of course, it could be argued that there are specific reasons that the ebook market was willfully left to stagnate, but only some of those reasons are important for the scope of this essay.



Author Earnings - Trade Books by Format

Author Earnings, 2016.

The Situation Right Now

According to a report released by Author Earnings at the Digital Book World conference in January, 2017, the indie and Amazon Imprint ebook market accounted for 54% of total ebook sales in 2016.5 These numbers included ebooks sold through Amazon, iBooks, and other retailers that Author Earnings’s “spider” software could crawl for sales snapshots. Author Earnings itself admits that there are some limitations to the methodology for their quarterly reports (from which this data is compiled):


[E]ach of our quarterly snapshots, no matter how comprehensive, is only an X-Ray of the US ebook market at that exact moment. It’s what’s called a cross-sectional study. Like a freeze frame photo, it can only tell us how the ebook market is faring as a whole, rather than predicting the future prospects of any particular author along any particular publishing path. […] each data set can only tell us how each individual author’s books happen to be selling at that precise instant in time.

The picture painted by each quarterly report, taken on its own, is thus necessarily incomplete.

They tell us nothing about the consistency of those individual authors’ earnings over time.6


However, despite the “incompleteness” of the data, there are some trends, when taken with the contextual history of how the market has adapted to include self-publishing over time, that can help predict where the next big upset in the publishing landscape might occur.


Bodice Rippers and Coloring Books 

Author Earnings - Online Sales by Genre

Author Earnings, 2016. (Pink circles added)


The outliers of the publishing industry have a story to tell about what gets printed and what doesn’t.

Author Earnings says that Adult Fiction has moved online, but a majority of this is because of the booming romance category, which runs differently from the rest of the fiction market to begin with.7 Romance is also one of the many indie market’s digital-first genres, where authors test the reception of their work in ebook format first, before adding on a print edition. (The difference with romance being that the “insatiable readers” of romance will often buy a book twice to support the author, with whom they often have access to through author-moderated fan communities.)

Author Earnings reports that the other major outlier, coloring books, which sold almost 12 million copies in 20158 and 14 million in 2016,9 have not only shifted heavily into the indie market sector (with indie authors making up 60% of the market share), they’ve also stayed in print.


Sales of Coloring Books Went Indie - Author Earnings, 2016.

Author Earnings, 2016.


The magnitude of this trend should not be overlooked, especially when thinking about the future of the print market. In comparison to other types of books, coloring books have the fewest barriers to publication. There is little to no editing skill required, minimal production (layout, typography, and color printing knowledge are unnecessary), and anyone with basic knowledge of Word and PDF creation can make a book as professional as Penguin Random House in half the time. More importantly, the audience for these books care very little about who published it, so long as it fulfills their reasons for purchasing it. Most importantly, authors within the indie market can competitively price their books with the click of a button, undercutting their competition in much the same way that Amazon has been undercutting brick-and-mortar stores since 1994.

Print Isn’t “Safe” from the Self-Publishing Industry

Looking at the data, it is easy to see that the ebook market is dominated by indie publishers and will continue to be so—but with that comes the assumption that the print industry, while shrinking or stable, will remain firmly in the realm of traditional publishers. I argue that isn’t the case. The demand for self-published print books is growing,10 and will only continue to do so. Once the accessibility of print services open up in the same ways ebook technology did, a surge similar to what happened with digital publishing will occur on the print side of the industry.

I am not arguing that indie authors will (or won’t) overtake traditional publishers in the print market; rather, that it is short-sighted to assume that there won’t be a point in time at which those authors won’t be competing with traditional presses by taking up a larger slice of a shrinking pie. And, should traditional publishers not gain the sort of flexibility that they failed to exhibit throughout the growth of the digital market, they may find themselves not only unable to depend on title P&Ls for their business decisions, but repeatedly being challenged by the innovative spirit the indie market has demonstrated throughout their domination of the digital market.

However, there are a couple of issues that stand in the way of the indie market’s ability to compete within the print industry:

  1. Bookstores, libraries, and other stores that carry books have not yet shifted their policies regarding independently-published books. It is a fact taken for granted that the publishing industry is a consignment industry, and until a POD printer allows returns, or bookstores revoke their demand that a book be returnable (a pipe dream), indie authors will have to struggle, case-by-case, to be stocked on shelves.
  2. The technology that makes print paperbacks and print hardcover versions of books are not all that accessible to indie authors. By this, I mean that the software have high barriers to entry in the realms of functionality, costs, and flexibility.


Independent Bookstores on the Rise

Selling books in a brick-and-mortar store is fundamentally different from selling a book online. Chain brick-and-mortar stores are like Starbucks, the same no matter where you go. That homogeneity may be the reason sales are depressed, because there’s no reason to browse if every bookstore you go to has the same featured books that Amazon and other online retailers are carrying—and carrying at a much deeper discount.

One of the reasons that indie bookstores are on the rise may be because they bring flexibility and ingenuity back into the mix. Local communities care about whether their store survives. Titles feel handpicked and employees seem to have a more personalized touch when handselling.11 Independent bookstores still play a major role in deciding bestsellers. While some of this may be a collective narrative and no more, a narrative is more than powerful enough to make an idea succeed. And an environment that values locality and autonomy is an environment where indie authors can excel.

Hardcover and print unit sales for traditional publishers in 2016 were around 790 million. (Author Earnings, 2016). For self-publishers who have consistently been outselling and outearning traditionally published authors in the Amazon ebook market, print unit sales in the same year were closer to 22 million. The gap is clear. However, if print technologies through Createspace and Ingram become more accessible and fair, there’s no reason to think this won’t change. Despite the sound argument by Alison Strobel in her essay “Self-Publishing’s Limits”—regarding the need for distribution centers, warehouses, and upfront monetary investments the indie market will need in order to succeed in the print sector12—there is evidence to suggest that the market is leaning the other way: indie stores have a long tradition of hosting local author books and events, and Barnes & Noble is one of the few and notable chain bookstores that does the same. It may even be that, despite Barnes & Nobles’s questionable business decisions in the last few years, its flexibility in working with the indie communities is one of the reasons it has been surviving.13

Show Me the Money

Print remains the place where publishers receive the largest profit margin, even for POD printing. Traditional publishers sell less units of ebooks, but earn more revenue overall from each sale due to higher pricing structures. At first glance, it seems that many indie authors sell not only more units but earn more revenue, but the low price points for ebooks mean that many authors earn less than $500 a year.14


Sample print royalty rate for the book

Sample print royalty rate for the book “Darkly Never After,” a self-published anthology.


While an indie author will rarely have the advantage of bulk pricing for larger print runs, they will still see more from the sale of a $14.99 print book than a $2.99 ebook (the current median for ebook and print pricing in the indie market).


Sample Ebook Royalty Rate

Sample ebook royalty rate.


In addition, an indie author can undercut many traditional publishers in the print arena as print books for both paperback and hardcover have been steadily climbing.15 So long as the quality from one matches the quality of another, consumers won’t care. What happened to bookstores when Amazon reset the entire industry’s price point expectations will happen again, except this time with indie print books in opposition to traditionally-published print books on retail (and online) shelves. And with Amazon increasingly marketing its own imprints where it dominates online retail channels, this trend will only continue.


School Library Journal Average Book Prices for 2016.

School Library Journal, 2016.


POD Printing

In 2008, at the height of IngramSpark’s print-on-demand reign, Amazon, which had recently acquired a POD printer called BookSurge, made a startling demand: if publishers wished to have their POD books carried by Amazon, they would have to use BookSurge, or their “BUY” buttons would be removed. Within a month, an antitrust lawsuit was filed against the online retail giant by small POD publisher BookLocker. The lawsuit would last two years and $300,000 in lawyer fees for the owners of BookLocker, but Amazon was forced to settle (and pay the lawyers). Not long after, Amazon rebranded BookSurge as CreateSpace, which is now one of, if not the largest POD printer for indie authors on the market. Ironically, despite its antagonistic history with Lightning Source/Ingram, it now relies on its competitor to make its Expanded Distribution Channels possible (an optional service on CreateSpace that makes a book published on Amazon “available” to bookstores and other retail outlets). Meanwhile, Ingram tends to market itself to established mid-sized and small or micro presses, leaving the bulk of the indie market to Amazon’s discretion. There are other competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, but it’s hard to argue Amazon’s power when it comes to being able to print a book, upload an ebook, and distribute it to a massive consumer base all on one platform—and now, with the introduction of KDP Print, all on one website.

If You Build It They Will Print It

Traditional publishers have been slow to adopt XML workflows, a process that would arguably speed up the entire publication process and transform production into a lean, efficient, metadata-rich system. Self-publishers, on the other hand, who aren’t indoctrinated by old standards of the publishing industry and prioritize digital-first environments to test out what is and isn’t enjoyed by their base, are primed to adopt XML with little resistance. Roadblocks to independent publishing in the past have included clunky and confusing PDF submission guidelines (in many ways necessitating access to Adobe products, which largely are only accessible through monthly subscription models—a system with little value proposition to an individual not planning to use the software more than 1 or 2 times a year). Guidelines for places like Ingram or Lightning Source run 30 to 40 pages; an overwhelming and confusing process for most indie authors.

However, last month, Amazon rolled out KDP Print, which, while in beta, seems to answer the frustrations long-expressed by the indie community by offering a way to turn their ebooks into a paperback—much like an XML workflow. This (along with companies like Draft2Digital, which make the process of formatting a book as simple as uploading a common document type), will facilitate the future of the indie market’s printing boom.

In the end, it is an oversight to assume that indie authors are only in the digital realm because that is where they want to be. In fact, many authors desire print versions of their work, and it is the technological capability alone that stands in their way.16 While in the early 2000s, this set indie authors up to be taken advantage of by predatory vanity presses like Author Solutions, in recent years, support communities like SFWA’s Writer Beware and Absolute Write have banded together on the shared desire to accredit publishing service providers both big and small.

KDP Print: Amazon is Moving In on Production

Earlier this year, Amazon unveiled a new service for its indie authors: KDP Print. In effect, this service gives a much needed facelift and UI improvements to CreateSpace. One of the most notable and massive changes is the marrying of ebook and print production under one URL (and therefore, one user account). All of the functionality of CreateSpace remains, except Amazon is flipping the traditional publishing process on its head: start with digital, then move to print.

This logically makes a great deal of sense. Amazon’s massive self-publisher market is already familiar (and loyal to) Kindle Direct Publishing, and the use of the similar interface takes away a lot of the confusion and mistrust with CreateSpace’s clunky and outdated interface. Gone are the pixelated instructional menus—authors can now glide through the print process as easily as uploading a Word or PDF document, and correct errors that CreateSpace would normally flag. In the past, platforms like Amazon Advantage and CreateSpace separated the two production processes for books so much that, for some authors, it was simply not worth the trouble.

What does it mean for KDP to now be offering print? In addition to a single space within which to view sales data for both print and ebooks, preorders may soon be on the table, a functionality Amazon added to KDP for ebooks a couple of years ago. Expect that indie authors will respond positively and aggressively to that change.


As barriers for self-published authors continue to diminish in making a product that rivals traditionally-published books, the lines between the two industries will further blur. If the traditional presses do not actively reflect on the aspects of their businesses that failed to make them competitive in certain digital genres, they can expect that when the print “boom” happens (and it will), that expansion for indies will be coming out of their own market share. With the state of the publishing industry already so precarious (especially in the United States and Canada), the upset could be far-reaching and intense. It isn’t about digital vs. print. It isn’t even about online vs. brick-and-mortar. It’s about two very different industry models vying for the same market, and as the digital realm has shown, consumers don’t prefer one over another—they just want good content.



1. Flood, Alison. “Ebook Sales Pass Another Milestone.” The Guardian, April 15, 2011, sec. Books.
2. “Canadian Publishing in 2016: A Review.” BookNet Canada. Accessed March 25, 2017.
3. “E-Book Share of Total Consumer Book Sales in the U.S. 2009-2015 | Statistic.” Statista. Accessed March 25, 2017.
4. Nusca, Andrew. “Print Books Are far from Dead. But They’re Definitely on the Decline.” Fortune, September 24, 2015.
5. “Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the Numbers” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017.
6. “Individual Author Earnings Tracked across 7 Quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015.” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017.
7. Ha, Thu-Huong. “Maverick Women Writers Are Upending the Book Industry and Selling Millions in the Process.” Quartz. Accessed March 25, 2017.
8. “2015 U.S. Book Industry Year-End Review.” Nielsen. Accessed March 25, 2017.
9. “Is the Adult Coloring Book Trend Coming to an End?” Time. Accessed March 25, 2017.
10. “Technology: Self-Publishing – From Blog to Book: How Self-Publishers Yearn for Print.” Print Week, no. 18. Journal Article (2012).
11. “Read All about It: Print Might Be on Rise but Book Sale Figures Incomplete.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Accessed March 21, 2017.
12. “Self-Publishing’s Limits.” Thinkubator: R&D at Publishing @ SFU. PUB800, December 9, 2015.
13. McIlroy, Thad. “B&N to Sell Self-Published Books In Stores.” Book Business, July 8, 2016.
14. Flood, Alison. “Stop the Press: Half of Self-Published Authors Earn Less than $500.” The Guardian, May 24, 2012, sec. Books.
15. SLJ. “SLJ’s Average Book Prices for 2016.” School Library Journal. Accessed March 25, 2017.
16. Rich, Motoko. “As Publishers Cut Back, Self-Publishing Booms Print-on-Demand Houses Make Money on Books That Sell Almost No Copies.” International Herald Tribune, January 29, 2009, 4 edition, sec. Finance.

Authors as Brands: How does this affect the publishing landscape?

In the publishing industry, marketers are constantly looking for the best way to sell a book. One of the most notable practices in marketing is branding an author. This is when an author has name recognition and generally has a genre or style attached to them. The act of branding is not something new to the industry, but it has definitely become more prevalent in later years with the rise in authors and more books in the market. To make an impression, or to make a sale, people need to recognize the name. Branding authors is a very important practice from a marketing perspective, and one that makes selling a book much easier but this is problematic for a number of reasons, internal to the publishing industry and to authors. There is a risk that if the publishing industry relies too heavily on using brands or on branding authors, other books will not receive enough funding, or even be acquired unless they already have brand recognition.

Authors have been revered by publishers and by audiences for many years. They are often thought of as the holders of truth, as the singular genius that have created a work and are treated with respect and admiration. Whatever your feelings are on authors, it’s clear that there are many people who view them as the most important figure in relation to their work. J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele, Robert Ludlum. These are names that are easily recognizable and are, themselves a brand. J.K. Rowling will forever be associated with Harry Potter. Danielle Steele has been featured in Forbes’ list of 10 top-earning authors for the past three years.  Robert Ludlum is such a notable brand that even though he died several years ago, books are still being published in his name.[i] Joe Moran’s text, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America, comments on the growth of celebrity authors and how it has become common to see authors in the public sphere, like talk shows and book signings. There are many different types of celebrity that Moran describes, but it is still obvious that they are still creating a brand through their work, interviews and the persona they create.[ii] To “focus on the personality, not the work”[iii] has become common practice because it is much easier to market a person than it is to explain what a book is about and why it is important to read. Since the book became an important cultural phenomenon, the author has been tied to the work in equal measure. What has changed in recent years is the devotion to celebrity culture and the size of the market, which makes it even more difficult to compete which is why authors and marketers have turned to creating a brand.

In my research for this paper, I found hundreds of articles online to help new and growing authors in their quest to become a brand. So what exactly does this mean? And what does it entail? First, it is clear that you have to have a distinct vision and style.[iv] This is probably most clearly demonstrated in genre fiction where authors are often tied heavily to the world they have created. For example, when a reader picks up a Stephen King novel they can expect suspense, horror and science-fiction. If he were to change how he writes, there is the chance that this would “disappoint and alienate his readers.”[v] To become a brand, an author has to form an identity: one that connects to the public and is easily distinguished from others. Codex data has shown that customers are willing to pay 66% more for an eBook by a favourite author over an unknown author.[vi] If you still doubt the power of a name, consider Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling published by one of the big-five publishers Little Brown (Hachette) in 2013. Despite being well-reviewed, in its first month it sold just 440 print copies. When it was later revealed that it was written by JK Rowling, the sales increased considerably.[vii] An author’s brand is meant to establish with audiences, “Why you?” over the many other authors “vying for their limited attention”, and it should be consistently delivered through every work.[viii] This does not mean the work has to be the same, but it has to be clear to the audience that it is your work.[ix]

From a marketing perspective, there are many reasons why branding an author would be beneficial. First, you are creating a niche that the author can fill. This means in the long-run you will continue to sell books from this author because of the specific space they fill in the market. After their name has been established it’s easier to sell their work as “the new book from…” instead of trying to express what the book is about. Furthermore, this makes it easier to fulfill audience expectations and to have an idea of what audiences want if they want a book by a specific author. Ultimately this means you have guaranteed buyers who will always want to buy their work. This is substantiated in a poll in The Making of a Bestseller. Editors and agents believe that fan base and “whether the author’s previous book was a bestseller” are keys to success.[x] Generally branded authors have a big audience because their name grows with the amount of books they publish. This is because their relationship to their audience is constantly developing and they are always gaining more fans as their name gains popularity.

Also in the long-term, it is much easier for a marketer to invest in a single person than investing in many up-coming authors. If the marketer feels an author has a strong voice, they can spend time building them a strong platform and social media presence. Pouring money and time into one person who ultimately will produce work consistently and connect with audiences is more worthwhile than trying to do this with every author who might not suit being branded. Certainly author’s fan bases and well known authors existed before marketing books, but marketers have helped increase author celebrity and contribute greatly to branding authors.  Marketers are dedicated to helping the book sell and having an author with an audience is an easy way to sell books. Branding is an easy way to get books bought, but it can have negative effects on authors and publishers.

In the publishing industry, the marketing department has a limited budget which can only spread so far. An author with name recognition or who in future could become a brand name for the company would most likely receive more funding. These are the authors that will get to tour, have posters made, be sent for interviews and will have more exposure than others. The publisher wants to stay in the mind of the audience and further the author’s name in hopes that this will lead to more sales and generate fans. If a large chunk of the marketing budget is put towards these authors, then other books will suffer from a lack of funds. Even with big name publishers who have more money than most are still more likely to put money towards authors who have the potential to sell more books. There are also many authors (especially in literary fiction) who are not easily branded, depending on what they write or how much they are willing to be in the public eye. Because of this, there is a hierarchy set up within the industry between authors who are willing to be branded and those who will not. There are also books that have difficult subject matter and need more money to generate interest, which they are less likely to receive. It’s certainly cynical to believe that marketers will go for an easy sale, but considering how dependent publishing is on sales, it is not surprising that their money would be focused on authors who can generate the sales needed.

Also, smaller publishers have trouble competing with bigger publishers who are more likely to be able to support branded authors and can help brand authors because of their resources.  Not only is it harder for smaller publishers to hold onto authors who could become high-sales brands, it is also difficult for them to compete with the marketing budget these authors receive. This is one of the many aspects in the industry where smaller publishers just can’t compete on the same terms. Furthermore, generally smaller publishers are known for their high literary work, which is often viewed of in opposition to celebrity. In Star Authors, Moran details how authors are constantly struggling to come to terms with their celebrity and how mass market work is sometimes viewed as not as valuable as literary fiction. Fame often becomes the focus of many notable authors work as they struggle to hold onto what they want to create with many expectations being placed upon them.[xi] Although, many of these authors cannot remain in the small-literary-publishing sphere because they do not have the resources to print enough copies or market the authors widely. Branding authors has contributed to an unnecessary, forced dichotomy of mass market vs. literary fiction. This is only perpetuated by the status and amount of money in big name publishers vs. smaller cultural publishers.

Another downside to branding authors is the possibility that this could affect acquisition choices in big and small publishers. If the publishing industry becomes too reliant on big name authors and valuing pre-established marketing power then a lot of authors will not be chosen. It is apparent through the many people I have met through this program that often publishers look at the platform an author already has before signing them. This includes their followers on social media, what they have published, whether or not they have a website, and what their estimated audience will be. The author might only be valued because of their pre-existing platform rather than because of what they are contributing to literature. Some publishers might decide to start branding an author or choosing work simply because their style is unique, not necessarily because they should be published. If we are too reliant on this mode of marketing, and the potential for money-making over what actually works for the publisher and author, the publishers will make more money but also could ignore voices that should be published, because they are harder to market.

If publishers invest too heavily in the brand of the author, this can lead to their compromising their integrity in a big way because there is a greater potential to incorrectly market a book or value the author’s brand over the quality of the book. There are many authors in the world who are notable enough names that often their books covers are all designed similarly to give them an aesthetic appeal. In this case, publishers are not really selling the work itself, but the idea of the work. There is also a possibility that the quality of the book would diminish because as long as it is contributed to the brand, that is more important that what the product is. The intention or value of the book also might be lost because it was more important from a marketing perspective to promote the author as a whole brand rather than their work as individual pieces. This could also alienate new audiences who are misled by the cover design. Since author branding is a very innocent way to promote a book, and one many do not think about, I believe there is more of a risk to compromise in the name of the author. A publisher might believe they are doing something good to help one of their authors instead of seeing branding for the troublesome space it occupies in the industry. If a publisher is willing to compromise in this regard, and turn to only authors who can and should be branded, there are many authors who exist outside of this realm that would be lost.

Branding an author is problematic for many reasons, but what are the alternatives? One option would be to make the publisher the brand instead of the author. In this case, the publisher would have to focus their publications considerably to create the niche and following an author receives. There are also already brand-name publishers that exist, but because of the variety of what they publish they don’t exist in the same way a branded author does. A benefit of having a publisher as the brand would at least steer aware from this author-worship that often exists in the current model, but would also push a lot of reform from companies that are very hesitant to change.

Another option would be to steer clear of branding completely and instead market each book as an individual work. The difficulty of this is that many people invest heavily in the author still, and we would have to change people’s thinking from emphasizing who created it, to what was created. Branding is shorthand for marketers and it is necessary in the current climate with audiences who’s time is precious to them. It’s easy for marketers to say “this is the next Gillian Flynn” than it is to say how the book distinguishes itself in the current market. In both instances, the changes are quite significant but I think either model would be preferable to what we have currently.

There are many expectations placed on brand name authors by marketers to fulfill their role in publishing as a creator who falls into a certain style. Beyond just how this affects the author, branding in publishing can negatively affect the industry in many ways. As convenient as it is for the marketing department in a publisher to depend on an author’s name to carry their work, it has become standard in the industry to push for authors who will be willing to put themselves forward in hopes that they will eventually become a brand. Authors as brands are an easy way to make a sale, but limit the authors and often put publishers in a position to put money towards these works rather than new books.



[i] Hephzibah Anderson, “How Authors become Mega-brands,” BBC Culture,

[ii] Joe Moran, Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. (London, GB: Pluto Press, 2000), 10. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] NY Book Editors, “Your Guide to Branding Yourself as an Author,” Ny Book Editors,

[v] Writer’s Relief Staff, “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand,” Huffington Post,

[vi] David Vinjamuri, “The Strongest Brand in Publishing Is…,” Forbes,

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Kimberley Grabas, “How To Build Your Author Brand From Scratch (And Why You Need To),” The Book Designer,

[ix] Writer’s Relief Staff, “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand,” Huffington Post,

[x] Brian Hill and Dee Power, Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them. Chicago, US: Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

[xi] Joe Moran, Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. (London, GB: Pluto Press, 2000), 10. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.



Anderson, Hephzibah. “How Authors become Mega-brands.” BBC Culture,

Grabas, Kimberley. “How To Build Your Author Brand From Scratch (And Why You Need To).” The Book Designer,

Hill, Brian, and Power, Dee. 2005. Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them. Chicago, US: Dearborn Trade Publishing. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Moran, Joe. 2000. Star Authors : Literary Celebrity in America. London, GB: Pluto Press. Accessed February 20, 2017. ProQuest ebrary.

Vinjamuri, David. “The Strongest Brand in Publishing Is…” Forbes,

Writer’s Relief Staff. “Why Every Writer Needs An Author Brand.” Huffington Post,

NY Book Editors. “Your Guide to Branding Yourself as an Author.” Ny Book Editors,

Nike’s swoosh line, Starbuck’s two-tailed mermaid, McDonald’s golden arches; branding and being recognizable to consumers is of utmost importance for a company. But according to Erin Cox, “the trend in trade publishing has been to focus on branding an author instead of an imprint[1].” This essay will argue that branding a publisher or imprint like any other company is more lucrative and better on a long-term basis. It will first consider the many ways in which Penguin Random House, the number one player in the publishing industry, uses its logo, distinctive colour palette, imprints, and its new bookstore to brand themselves and the effect they have on their readers. Finally, this essay will consider several advantages publishing houses, whether big or small, have in branding themselves, as well as look at productive ways to do so.


Brand Recognition

But first, it is important to have a clear understanding of what “branding” means. Borrowing Erin Cox’s definition, “branding is a method by which a publisher or a publishing imprint defines who they are and the types of books they publish in order to establish a relationship with the reader.” It is easier for a niche publisher to define who they are and appeal to a chosen audience as they focus on one specific compartment of the industry. Harlequin is a good example of genre specific branding. Romance readers know what to expect when they pick up a Harlequin book. Many go as far as to subscribe[2] to them, something that isn’t easy to accomplish in the industry. Much like someone chooses a Starbuck’s coffee over a Tim’s for its overpriced quality, a fan of the romance genre will choose a book published by Harlequin because they know they will not be disappointed with the brand’s consistent delivery and quality.


It is, however, more difficult for a trade publisher like Penguin Random House to establish that kind of relationship with their readers[3] because they publish in a variety of genres and every book targets a unique audience that isn’t necessarily related to the previous publication. Yet, the brand of the black and white penguin inside the orange circle is still recognized widely, even among readers. To understand this occurrence better, let us consider the merger of the two companies together. In 2013, Penguin Group (owned by Pearson) and Random House (owned by Bertelsmann) combined to form Penguin Random House, a global trade book publisher that produces over 15,000 books a year, employs over 10,000 people, and owns 250 recognized publishing divisions, imprints, and brands[4]. It was announced that Bertelsmann (Random House) now owns 53% of the company’s share while Pearson (Penguin) has the remaining 47%[5]. Yet, the new company’s name is Penguin Random House and the brand’s new logo is a penguin. Even its wordmark uses Penguin’s distinct orange shade.


My theory is that Penguin Random House decided to keep the penguin logo and iconic colour because of its established brand in the publishing industry. While most publishers kept—and still keep—the front cover of their books free of their personal branding, Penguin went the opposite direction. From the start, Penguin Group was careful to include its logo and colour (when possible) on many of their series’ front covers, or at the very least, prominently displayed on the spine of every book. This recurring imagery became, with time, meaningful to readers. Now, after several years of promotion, the Penguin brand is “synonymous with quality books, impressive design, experimentation, and a great sense of fun[6],” or a “combination of quality authors and quirky legacy[7].” Readers associate the penguin and the bright orange to their favourite books and have grown to trust the brand to deliver an enjoyable product of quality. Thus, when faced with the choice of buying George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from Penguin or from another publisher, a reader is likely to decide based on brand recognition, because that feeling of trust cannot be bought or forced on readers. And, as Edward Nawotka said, “[a]t the end of the day, branding is about making you feel something[8].”


Along the lines of brand recognition, Penguin Random House recently opened a bookstore in Toronto, under the company’s Canadian headquarters. The shop features a “curated selection of titles and trusted recommendations[9]” that changes every so often, as well as book-related merchandise like mugs, notebooks, and tote bags[10], and other “high-quality modern accessories[11].” In addition to their recommendations, the shop also offers special editions of their reader’s favourite books and a collection of Canadian authors’ bestsellers. As you can see in the photo below, everything—from bookshelves to products—was designed to match the brand, creating a friendly, sophisticated atmosphere. Finally, the store has only one permanent employee who is assisted by rotating volunteers from the office above[12], and it sometimes holds author signings and other such events. Readers might even cross paths with their beloved authors who may be on their way to the company’s office. According to Robert Wheaton, Penguin Random House Canada’s chief operating officer, the shop “is not a venture into direct bookselling, but an experiment in research and development: a way for employees, from sales and marketing to design and editorial, to interact directly with book consumers[13].” In conclusion, considering insights[14] that the company gains from interacting with readers, the store is a means to improve the production and delivery of future publications. But it also strengthens the brand in the customer’s eye with its unique design, its propagation of branded high-quality items that consumers will display proudly to their friends and on Instagram, and its commitment to allow readers a certain access to their favourite authors.


Communities and Relationships

But even after considering Penguin Random House as the world’s largest book publisher[15] and recognizing its distinguishable logo, the company still faces the same challenge as every other large trade publishing house: branding for a specific audience. They do, however, have a certain advantage given that some of Penguin’s and Random House’s imprints already had a distinctive brand before the merger. Based on Mike Shatzkin’s theory, those imprints are at the heart of the company’s success. Much like General Motors would not have been as profitable without their sub-divisions, marketing Chevrolet cars to a different audience than Cadillac[16], each of PRH’s imprints targets a unique market, facilitating the brand’s marketing efforts. Penguin Classics, for instance, with its recognizable, classy look and illustrations, holds its highbrow reputation[17] of classical texts. The penguin logo is on every single front cover, assuring that, even when the book is mentioned on a website or in a review, showing only the front cover, readers will be subjected to the brand. Rough Guides is another example of a branded imprint. The logo is big, graphic, and used on every publication and promotional item, feeding Rough Guide’s reputation of “providing indispensable travel information[18]” to every pair of eyes that comes in contact with the books. And these are only two instances among many others.


But although some of PRH’s imprints evoke a clear sentiment of trust in readers, the company still hasn’t achieved the “Harlequin status” of reputable, branded publishing house. An imprint like Plume, for example, which publishes mainly trade paperbacks written by authors whose “voices [were] previously neglected by mainstream publishing[19],” offers no element on the front cover of their books that indicates who publishes them. There is neither a logo nor a recurring feature that distinguishes their books from any other publisher’s. But there is hope for change. According to Tom Weldon, CEO at PRH, the new company brand system will be “evolutionary not revolutionary[20],” meaning that the company will evolve over time, recognizing the “diversity and individuality of the Random House imprints alongside Penguin’s more unified brand approach[21].” Whether PRH decides to distinctively brand each imprint as an individual, marketable identity or not isn’t clear, but there are many reasons why they should.


First, branding authors is a great way to create reader loyalty, until the author decides to move on to another publishing house, taking their readership with them. In addition, because the most productive authors produce one or two books a year[22], branding opportunities are limited[23]. Therefore, instead of relying on authors, publishers could rely on their own personality and talent to remind readers how much they liked their previous books and why they will enjoy the publisher’s next publication, no matter who writes it. This, according to Erin Cox, could be accomplished by addressing the reader directly. Publishers could put more energy and capital into advertising for the brand. They could also pair current titles with the backlist, package books differently to promote the publisher’s brand more prominently, train staff members to become spokespeople for the company (organize interviews, host book clubs, write blogs, etc.), and interact with readers—something that Penguin Random House is doing with their Penguin Shop—through the publisher’s website, giveaways, or any other medium that makes sense for the publishing house[24].


All this capital spent on marketing the publisher’s brand would not go to waste, even as authors come and go, because it is, as Mike Shatzkin explained in his article, investment marketing. Compared to spent marketing—which doesn’t last—investment marketing is all about building a community and developing relationships[25]. It is not only interacting with readers but giving them a common interest that will enable them to interact with the brand even when the publisher is not involved. Such communities already exist in the publishing world. They are informally called fandoms. Pottermore was a great example a few years ago when the website was interactive. Harry Potter fans would create their own accounts and interact with peers from across the planet while learning more about the world they all adored. A similar community could be possible, especially for niche publishers and imprints. And here, being niche doesn’t require publishing in only one genre, but instead defining the publisher’s editorial vision and focussing on books that uplift this vision. Doing so would not only reduce marketing costs[26] but also help readers know where to look for their next read, reducing their chance of being disappointed[27].


Increasingly Digital

All these advantages and tips are becoming more and more crucial as the publishing industry progresses into a digital world. For instance, as Michael Smith points out, branding book covers is even more important now with the growing popularity of e-books. Elements that individualized the print book, such as the type of paper, size, and wrap cover, don’t matter when a reader buys the Kindle version. “The brand experience is owned and loaned by the Kindle machine[28],” he says. Even as potential customers search the web to find their next read—on Amazon for instance—they rarely have access to full wrap covers, making it difficult for them to recognize who the publisher is. This, along with the increasing number of books published every year, is why carefully branding publishers and imprints must become a priority.


[1] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017.

[2] Shatzkin, Mike. “Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c.” The Idea Logical Company. September 06, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[3] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017.

[4] “About Penguin Random House Canada.” Penguin Random House Canada. April 24, 2015. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cooney, Jessica. “Penguin Random House Canada to Open Retail Location in Toronto.” Penguin Random House Canada. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[7] Smith, Michael. “The importance of publisher brand on book covers.” A Brand Day Out. October 22, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[8] Nawotka, Edward . “What Makes for Effective Publisher Branding?” Publishing Perspectives. March 31, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[9] Cooney, Jessica. “Penguin Random House Canada to Open Retail Location in Toronto.” Penguin Random House Canada. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Penguin Shop – About.” Penguin Shop. 2017. Accessed February 17, 2017.

[12] Tobias, Conan. “Penguin-branded bookstore opens in Toronto.” Quill and Quire. August 24, 2016. Accessed February 17, 2017.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nawotka, Edward. “PRH Canada Opens Toronto Bookstore.” August 25, 2016. Accessed February 10, 2017.

[15] Greenfield, Jeremy. “Penguin and Random House Combine to Form World’s Largest Book Publisher.” Digital Book World. October 29, 2012. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[16] Shatzkin, Mike. “Publishers, brands, and the change to b2c.” The Idea Logical Company. September 06, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[17] Jojal. “Penguin’s highbrow reputation.” Paperbackrevolution. January 03, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2017.

[18] “The Rough Guide to Provence & the Cote d’Azur.” Bookstobrowse. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[19] “Plume Overview.” Penguin Books USA. Accessed February 17, 2017.

[20] Shaffi, Sarah. “PRH unveils new branding | The Bookseller.” PRH unveils new branding | The Bookseller. June 14, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2017.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017.

[23] Nawotka, Edward . “What Makes for Effective Publisher Branding?” Publishing Perspectives. March 31, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[24] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017.

[25] Shatzkin, Mike. “Stay Ahead of the Shift: What Publishers Can Do to Flourish in a Community-Centric Web World.” The Idea Logical Company. May 29, 2009. Accessed February 15, 2017.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Cox, Erin L. “[INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]: Why Branding to Readers Should Matter to Publishers.” Publishing Perspectives. March 031, 2010. Accessed February 13, 2017.

[28] Smith, Michael. “The importance of publisher brand on book covers.” A Brand Day Out. October 22, 2010. Accessed February 15, 2017.

Just last year, around forty books became films (Vestal) with The Martian going on to win a Golden Globe. And after spending more than two years on the New York Times bestsellers list, Ransom Riggs’ debut novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children from Quirk Books, will be released this September as a film by Tim Burton. Rights are being bought left and right by big-name directors, and fans are seeing beloved characters come to life. Need we have to touch on the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, which basically has the next five years filled with blockbusters? 

martian peculiar

Although adapting books to films are firmly part of the publishing industry’s backbone, another mode of storytelling called transmedia storytelling also help the industry stay relevant as well. Commonly mistaken to mean the same thing, adaptations and transmedia refer to two different ways to tell stories. An “adaptation” means a text is altered or amended for filming (OED), while “transmedia storytelling” is using multiple platforms to continue a single narrative (Rutledge). Both positively contribute to publishing, more specifically the continuance of print, in different ways.


This article will hopefully convince you that, when it comes down to it, print won’t die due to both of these storytelling modes, as the move from screen to print offers a more enriching entertainment experience. While sitting through a two and half hour movie may be exciting (until your behinds hurt), sitting down with a book adapted from a film is often more rewarding as there is more room to dive into details not cinematically covered. And when it comes to transmedia, stories are built upon, worlds are expanded, and the experience continues regardless of whether or not the film (or TV series) finishes.


Within the last three decade or so, novelizations of films have entered the marketplace as regular promotion for a majority of major releases (Mahlknecht, 138). Often, films based on books are re-released with new covers depicting the recognizable movie poster, trying to attract audiences. “A look at the cover of any given novelization inevitably suggests the film more than anything else” (141); however, beneath the surface there is often a divergent from the final film material. As stated in Mahlknecht’s article, the writer of the novelization “rarely gets to see even a rough cut of the film than the studio commissioned him or her to novelize” (141). This allows for more creativity when crafting the story as the writer is not simply regurgitating the film on to paper. They also often differ from the films because, if the writer is privy to the script it is usually an earlier draft. Because these books are simultaneously released with the films, they include scenes that never made it into the final cut (Chicago Reader, Jones), giving readers a chance to experience the story in a different way. For Greg Cox, a longtime “film novelizer”, he often creates novels from very little information provided by the film company. For example, when creating a 300-page novel he is often only privy to a 110-page script (Hazlitt, Sloan). And even if the novel isn’t based on an earlier script, they still give readers a rewarding experience.


“Fleshed out with a greater attention to character backstory and more descriptive action sequences” (Vanity Fair, Suskind), these novels offer fans more connectivity to the stories they enjoy. Popular novelizer Alan Dean Foster, who has written the famous novelization of Alien is a perfect example of creating a story beyond a film:






The opening scene of his novelization of Alien depicts the crew members in “hypersleep” on the way to Earth. Foster takes the opportunity to describe their dreams and flesh out their backstories—when they finally wake, the reader has more background on them than the film could provide. (Hazlitt, Sloan)





Reading a novelization of a film is also an opportunity to relive the excitement and enthusiasm experienced the first time around; something any fan would dive at (Vanity Fair, Suskind). There is also an appeal to novelizations because publishers already see a built-in audience. Katy Wild, the editorial director of Titan Publishing Group Ltd., says that, like the movies these books are simply another means of entertainment (Suskind), which people still seek out regardless of the digital age we live in. Some recent examples of novelizations that have taken off are the ones written by Greg Cox, who authored Godzilla, Dark Knight Rises, and Man of Steel; all of which sold steadily with much of their audience being ones who watched the films, with Man of Steel and Dark Knight Rises reaching best-seller status (Yahoo! Movies, Chaney).


Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 5.39.13 PM ManOfSteel_final_cvr_US-1-610x1002 Godzilla-novel


large_9781742837765Another reason for doing novelizations is to attract readers of a different audience. Most commonly seen with films targeted towards children, publishers often create “junior novels”. A publisher that excels at this is Marvel Publishing Worldwide who essentially capture “a flavour of the overall movie to make a terrific product”, (David Gabriel, Sr. V.P of print, sales, and marketing) that is easily marketed to parents who begin to read to their children. This audience is also a fairly reliable one too, as out of the “top 20 grossing movies of 2012, 2013, and 2014…reveals that most of the films that were turned into novels…were sold as junior or young adult titles” (Yahoo! Movies, Chaney). Though not the most lasting, novelizations such as junior novels can nevertheless be relied on for at least some profit. Especially for when the anticipation for a film is high, novelizations simply market themselves (Hazlitt, Sloan).


Regardless of being in this tremendously digitally suffocating world, film novelizations continue to be produced and sold. But despite having successful novelizations like the Alien books series, the act of novelizing is often under scrutiny; especially, by critics who “generally dismiss them as routinely commissioned, worthless by-products of the film whose release they accompany” (Mahlknecht, 139). And though the argument for them being as such is completely understandable, there is no denying the success they continue to garner. Dewey Gramer, a writer with 11 novelizations under his name, describes the process as a “dirty business” with extremely short deadlines  (The New York Times, Kobel). Novelizers also have to deal with sudden changes given by the film production team, on top of the short deadlines. For example, while writing the novel for Godzilla, Cox would get phone calls about new scenes shot, and be faxed the script pages. Four months up until the release of the film, Cox was still waiting for changes to be made, which gives a sense of how unpredictable the process of novelizing can be.


On the other hand, when novelizations are not directly created by someone transcribing scripts into novel form, they have a better chance of avoiding the scrutiny strict novelizations receive. Touching on a point made earlier about novelizations being a means of finding out more about a film’s story and characters, some instance go even further to even expand on plotlines and give further backstory. When this happens it’s referred to as transmedia storytelling; stories continue to be told (from film and TV) on pages. Since we already discussed novelizations, what will be covered now is how graphic novel tie-ins perpetuate storytelling in ways that are even more meaningful than adaptations from screen to print.




While novelizations give readers insight into details, transmedia storytelling continues stories giving readers even more. In the case of graphic novel versions of TV shows, they not only a way of giving fans more of what they want, but they create and maintain a connection with the readers. Take for example, the series end of Son Of Anarchy. The show’s creator, Kurt Sutter made statement saying that to keep the world of the show in the consciousness of fans, they would have to marry art and commerce (The New York Times, Alter). This in turn led to the creation of the the comic book series, Bratva and it speaks to the built-in audience discussed earlier as you know that fans will show up.



Another great example of transmedia storytelling through comics is the tie-in comics to the popular BBC American TV show Orphan Black, about one woman’s journey as she discovers she is part of a cloning conspiracy. With a premise like that, you could see how expanding beyond the world of the television screen is beneficial to the story building. The series publisher, IDW Publishing, spoke with one of its writers. She revealed that the show’s creators have developed expansive backstories to the clones on the show, and believed that the comic book medium would be a better way to tell these stories, that would not have worked as well on screen (IDW Publishing).




With shows ending, like Sons Of Anarchy, and new shows quickly building a fan base like Orphan Black, transmedia storytelling is a sure way to further engage with readers / viewers. And although comic book extensions of shows still receive backlash “as mere merchandise rather than art” (Alter), it does not keep writers, illustrators, and publishers away. It is an extension of the creativity that TV culture has cultivated, and it’s attracting established writers. For example, “Steven Charles Gould, an award-winning science fiction writer, signed on to write novels inspired by James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar” (Alter).


With big name writers and publishers backing up the choice to create comics and novels based off of TV show and films, knowing that there is an existing fan base to tap into, the future of print doesn’t seem too disappointing. Despite the backlash for it being a means of cheap merchandise at airports, there is meaning in the novels and comics tied to films. With all the promotion done for films as well, these novelizations continue to sell themselves; both as a means of detailing stories and giving publishers to make more print books.








“adaptation, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 30 March 2016.

Alter, Alexandra. “Popular TV Series and Movies Maintain Relevance as Novels.” The New York Times 4 Jan. 2015: A1. Web.  

Chaney, Jen. “What Does the Future Look Like for Movie Novelizations?.” Yahoo! Movies 18 June. 2014. Web.  

Clarke, M. J. “The Strict Maze Of Media Tie-In Novels.” Communication, Culture & Critique 2.4 (2009): 434-456. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Jones, J.R. “You’ve seen the movie — now write the book!.” Chicago Reader 18 Nov. 2011. Web.  

Kobel, Peter. “To Some, a Movie Is Just an Outline For a Book.” The New York Times 1 April. 2011. Web.

Mahlknecht, Johannes. “The Hollywood Novelization: Film As Literature Or Literature As Film Promotion?.” Poetics Today 33.2 (2012): 137-168. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Rutledge, Pamela. “What is Transmedia Storytelling?.” Athinklab. N.p., 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Sansbury, Jason. “Television Shows Turned Into Comics: Why Comics Excel At Keeping Stories Alive.” Nerds On Earth 24 Oct. 2015. Web.

Sloan, Will. “The Endangered Art of the Movie Novelization.” Hazlitt 20 Feb. 2014. Web.

Suskind, Alex. “Yes, People Still Read Movie Novelizations…And Write Them, Too.” Vanity Fair 27 Aug. 2014. Web.

Vestal, Shannon. “40 Books Becoming 2015 Movies.” MSN 5 April. 2015. Web.



Today’s films, television series, games, comics, novels, and even documentaries and journalism rely heavily on the concepts of world-building and world-mapping. The idea of the “fictional world” took roots in and around fantasy and science fiction in the first half of the 20th century, pushed forward by writers like L. Frank Baum and J.R.R. Tolkien. It has gained greater and greater traction as Transmedia production practices seek to disperse meaningful parts of an entertainment experience across multiple delivery platforms, as production designers exert much greater influence over the creative vision behind popular fictions, and as networks of fans seek to pool knowledge via social media. The concept of a fictional world enables certain kinds of immersive experiences, providing both authors and readers with the cognitive structures they need to deal with enormous complexity — stories with vast time scales and ensemble casts. They encourage a kind of encyclopedic relationship with what’s presented on the screen, for example, a relationship that may exist with the information being conveyed by a documentary, or the nuances of historical fictions, or the sprawl of a genre franchise. (“A Brief History of Transmedia Worlds with Henry Jenkins”, 2014)

According to Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, in his 2003 analysis of the augmented universe of the Matrix film franchise, published in Technological Review, Transmedia strategies were in place well before the term was coined and defined, and certainly well before the rapid rise of digital media. He emphasised this idea by explaining that Transmedia Storytelling is perfectly viable without using new technologies, and that the latter have mainly been used as facilitators by the modern creators of Transmedia universes.

Two major advantages created by Transmedia are:

1. Multiple points of entry into the story world of the franchise, with great emphasis on user experience as the content would have been created using accepted tropes of the particular medium. This would mean that the content should appeal to fans of the different media in which the property appears eg. comic fans, film fans, music fans, game fans etc. This creative synergy undoubtedly will serve as a catalyst for cross-promotion and serve as an opportunity to have fans of the project in one medium become fans of it in another.

2. Further monetizing of the property. Traditionally, publishing sectors were discrete in their output with little collaboration, which presented a limited return on investment (ROI) flow and often led different sectors to be in somewhat of a competition. For example, money would be spent by producers to advertise a movie and then the ROI would come from the consumer buying a ticket, generally. As Transmedia becomes more popular allowing for the demand for properties to exist in different forms licensing is another key way to monetize creative efforts — merchandising, games, artwork, toys, films, television rights etc. As a publisher, you are essentially being paid by other creators to be associated with your work, and to create extensions of that work, offering consumers a more immersive experience and further developing their loyalty to your brand.

Co-creation is also another way a story comes to exist across different media; this, however, isn’t always a direct revenue channel, but more times than not helps with the promotion of a property extending its shelf life and the potential to gain further returns on the initial investment.

The big movie studios are not the only publishing operations that have seen the power of Transmedia. The gaming industry in the 1990s had huge success with a property that lives and continues to expand into the 21st century, which we will discuss.

Pikachu, I choose you!

In the latter part of the 1990s a new consumer phenomenon developed in Japan and swept across the globe. Enter Pokémon. Initially a piece of software to be played on Nintendo’s Game Boy (a hand-held, gaming computer), quickly diversified into a comic book, a television show, a movie, trading cards, stickers, small toys, and ancillary products such as backpacks and T-shirts. Pokémon is the most successful computer game ever made, the top globally selling trading card game of all time, one of the most successful children’s television programs ever broadcast, the top grossing movie ever released in Japan, and among the five top earners in the history of films worldwide. At Pokémon’s height of popularity, Nintendo executives were optimistic that they had a product, like Barbie and Lego, that would sell forever, and that, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, would become enduring icons worldwide. (“Pikachu’s Global Adventure,” 2004)


Pokémon isn’t just any globally circulating childhood craze. The content and mechanisms of success were engineered in Japan serving as a source of great national pride and a further signal of the country’s strategic economic importance. (Tobin, 2004). “To the Japanese Pikachu, the little yellow electric mouse who is the most popular character in the Pokémon universe, is ‘our mouse’, Japan’s long awaited answer to Mickey.” (“Pikachu’s Global Adventure,” 2004)

Who’s that Pokémon?

Japan’s net trade surplus masked the fact that it had a big deficit with the West when it came to the export of cultural products. Why this cultural trade imbalance? It is primarily an effect of the linguistic and cultural hegemony of the Anglophone West. (Pikachu’s Global Adventure, 2004 — pg. 55). The Japanese for many years had integrated elements of other cultures into their own leading to a hybridization of sorts — like all cultures, it is continuously re-inventing itself (Iwabuchi, 1998).

Pokémon, is a mixture of indigenous and borrowed elements even before it was subjected to repackaging by Japanese exporters and localization by the foreign importers. (“Pikachu’s Global Adventure,” 2004)

According to Iwabuchi, Pokémon was “de-odorized”. ‘De-odorization’ involves developing cultural products designed from the start to be scrubbed of any obvious ‘cultural odor’ (Iwabuchi, 1998). Tobin suggests that even if the the creators of Pokémon did set out with the intent to de-odorize, the Japanese computer games and anime space has as a norm de-odorized tropes such as cultureless landscapes, nationality-less characters, and hybrid intertextual references. It is important to note that Iwabuchi’s conceptualizing of de-odorization does not require conscious intent on the part of the creators, and allows for this characterization even if they did not set out to use it as a conscious global marketing strategy.

Pokémon has grown to become the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise. As of 2015, the Pokemon franchise has sold more than 277 million video game units, earning an incredible $57.65 billion in revenue. (“‘Pokken Tournament’ and Pokemon’s $1.5 Billion Brand”, 2016)

2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the original games, and will see the re-releases of Pokémon Red, Blue, and Yellow. The year will also see the launch of the next generation of games, Pokémon Sun and Moon, and the release of the new mobile augmented reality game Pokémon GO. The twentieth anniversary was also celebrated with a 2016 Superbowl commercial using the theme: “I can do that”.

Delving deeper into Transmedia

Now we turn our attention to the continuted relevance of Transmedia in the publishing media landscape.

Henry Jenkins did much work on Convergence Culture in the early 2000s and in his opinion, as a result of convergence, the cultural industries now perceive fans differently and are trying to come to terms with this new variable. He explained, for instance, that a number of television series, and movies have been kept on air and made even more popular thanks to fans’ support on social networks. Recent examples include Deadpool being made into a movie or Spain’s population becoming players in a Game of Thrones massively multiplayer role-playing game (MMRPG) built with Conducttr on top of Twitter. The MMRPG was supported by a 5 episode webseries and live events all designed to create engagement and conversation around the show. Players registered at the 19 Reinos (19 Realms) website to fight for a Great House (ie. Lannister, Stark, Targarian etc.) and a realm of Spain (ie. Madrid, Galicia, Andalucía etc.). Each week during the hour prior the show fans fought in a massive Twitter battle to become King or Queen of a Great House and ruler of a realm! Each of the 19 Realms would be ruled by a different Game of Thrones family according to the outcome of the Twitter battle.

Logics of engagement

In Jenkins’ view, there are five main logics that contribute to the emergence of Transmedia and the phenomenon of increased fan participation (‘fandom’) (“Henry Jenkins explains his vision of Transmedia and audience engagement”, 2012):

– The logic of entertainment, as evidenced by the presence in the US TV schedules of TV series and reality shows;

– The logic of social connection, highlighted by votes and discussions on social networking sites;

– The logic of experts, symbolized by the collective intelligence brought to bear by fans for the purposes of creation, production and discussion. Henry Jenkins cites the examples of the creation of Twin Peaks fan sites and the Lost Wiki (Lostpedia), which both collate articles written by fans to offer greater insight into both series;

– The logic of immersion, which encourages participation. For example, on Oscars night fans could use a number of interactive tools to immerse themselves in the ceremony and form a community;

– The logic of identification, which enables fans to establish an identity depending on what they watch.

Additionally, fans immersed in a wide-ranging narrative universe strive to produce their own transmedia extensions, in an example of what Jenkins calls the logic of performance. For example, fans of Lost have managed to create a map of the island which is not shown in the series, enabling them to map locations and characters’ movements.

As mentioned before, what you see here is that sometimes Transmedia expressions are unsanctioned but further build on the ecosystem of a property and serves to energize the base ie the fans who are members of the community. This is what some have come to call cocreation.

Jenkins also noted that some fan extensions precede the cultural industries’ Transmedia creations. He cited the example of Pottermore, the official Transmedia extension created by the author of the Harry Potter books. This website offers functions such as the Sorting Hat Ceremony, which determines which of the four school Houses each new Hogwarts student is assigned to. Further, we see Pottermore leading the charge, adding context for the upcoming Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them movie.

Fans’ activities can also become civic activities, as part of a movement called Transmedia activism. In this case, community sharing and discussions can promote concerted action in favour of political and charitable causes. For example, Palestinian children dressed up as the Na’vi people from James Cameron’s Avatar film, to peacefully symbolise the oppression of their people. The Hunger Games provides further examples. Fans of the literary trilogy and film joined forces with the Harry Potter Alliance and Oxfam to launch a campaign against global hunger entitled “Hunger is not a Game”. (“Henry Jenkins explains his vision of Transmedia and audience engagement”, 2012)

In summary, Transmedia is about building worlds and can be said to reflect publishing in a pure form, unencumbered by vessel, platform or fortmat. It is what we do in our aim to find publics for our content and messages. If we do it right we energize our publics to engage, letting us know what content and messages they would like to consume. This mandate is evident in the largest commercial publishers of books, movies, music et al, to the small literary press that focuses on curating “culture”. Generally, we create for engagement. We want people to interact with our work. Creators not only imitate the work but also extend, making the experience for themselves and others all the richer!

Pokemon Go!

This is a video explaining Pokemon Go, as mentioned earlier.

Works Cited:

Posting a poem instead of a selfie means you are asking people to engage with you at a deeper level, and that sort of subversion is part of poetry’s tradition
— Rishi Dastidar, theguardian


poem7With all the information the internet creates for the world to engage with, a surprising type of content is garnering a surprising amount of attention. Poetry is showing a steady trend in reaching readers and growing communities thanks to photo-sharing platform: Instagram. It’s the type of writing that raises eyebrows in book marketing; the peculiar manuscripts generally with fewer words than others, but often require more work to prepare. Poetry, this ‘underdog’ genre of publishing, is getting attention on a photo sharing app because it strategically uses hashtags, is designed to the same taste as what those who are on the app like, and it resembles the short readings that we have become accustomed to.




#NetGen Searches

When the internet came it quickly began sweeping people up and sending them across the web in a matter of a few clicks; it began to change the way people took in information. More images started to populate the digital landscape, communicating with one another essentially became instantaneous, and the internet became a place where short-form writing thrived and continues to do so in the success we see with poetry. With all of these affecting how people see and read, a new generation of readers came to be: the Net Generation, or Digital Natives, who “…have an inherent ability to read images, that ‘they are intuitive visual communicators’ who are ‘able to weave together images, text, and sound in a natural way’ (p. 2.5)…’The Net Generation is more visually literate than earlier generations'” (Journal of Visual Literacy, 2011).


Enter the poets of Instagram who appeal to this generation – my generation. Among pictures of heavily filtered sunrises are interjections of ones containing poetry; there is something to be said about a screenshot of words or a picture of someone’s writing on a typewriter. Poetry is as much a visual experience as it is a textual one. Taking it to a highly visual medium like Instagram opens up the possibilities of what can be done to the texts, and ultimately, who will be attracted to it. Take for instance, the.poetry.bandit (left), based here in Vancouver, BC with just over 21,000 followers. His poetry success is not accidental, however. Speaking with the writer himself, he spoke of being precise in how to get work to show up on people’s Instagram feeds.


Poets, like the.poetry.bandit, are writers who know that Digital Natives actively seek out what they want to read using a search technique proliferated by the internet: hashtags. #Instapoet, #Instapoetry, #PoetsofInstagram, #igpoets, and many more tags like these are associated with poetry on the app. These terms narrow in on what readers are looking for, weeding out any other writing, and images, that they do not wish to see. This greatly contributes to the success of the genre online as Melanie Figueroa, contributor to the blog: The Poetics Project, says:


…Poets have an advantage on Instagram. For published writers to those less established, Instagram—and features of the digital age, like hashtags for one—gives savvy poets the ability to reach a huge pool of readers from all over the world.


poem3Essentially speaking the language of the internet, Net Gen readers can get to poetry quicker, without having to pass through the middleman that is the publishing houses. Readers come to the poetry, instead of trying to get poetry to readers as houses try to do when look for a particular audience for a collection of poems. After having many guest speakers throughout the term, the ones touching on the marketing of books were quick to jokingly ask, “Who reads poetry?” when it came to publishing it. Though jokingly said, the idea is still prevalent that the genre is incredibly difficult to market. It’s highly specific, and readers of it are hard to identify. The hashtag works to solve this (left). Where publishers struggle, the same problem is nowhere seen in the digital landscape of Instagram as readers are having no problem discovering poetry there, as it is common to find most poetry accompanied by a slew of hashtags so readers can find them.


What hashtags also serve on the Instagram poetry community is establish a readership; identifiable people who fervently follow their favorite ‘Instapoets’. While many publishers ask, “Who reads poetry?”, that question is not so applicable on Instagram. By giving instant access to their writing, these poets can establish an immediate relation to their readers, something that could take a large amount of time and resources to achieve if done through a traditional publishing house’s marketing departments. The levels of engagement are heightened and hashtags open the floodgates for poetry to flow out, directly to readers. Figueroa mentions in the blog post how, because of hashtags, writers “…can begin developing a following early on in their careers before they even have a single thing in print. This completely upturns the typical way that the industry works, where publishers act as ‘gatekeepers'”. Associating images of poetry with hashtags is what lends the Next Gen as such fervent devours of Instapoetry; and example of how floodgates can be opened without the ‘gatekeepers’ of publishing.

The Look of InstaPoetry

poem5Like the.poetry.bandit, All of riojones7‘s writing is greatly visually treated, and at most times written with a typewriter, torn out and captured in the photo. Many poets do this sort of treatment for their work on Instagram. By treating poetry this way, and occasionally with a filter Instagram has built in, poets create their own distinct look; their brand on Instagram. They make their writing eye-popping, echoing poetry’s (and perhaps all writings’) tradition of being intimately produced with this vintage feel. This entire look is one that speaks to the visually literate generation; especially those who simply like ‘nice’ photos. It stops them in their tracks while scrolling. Heavy treatment of poetry on Instagram appeals because it easily attracts Digital Natives on a platform they are extremely familiar with, and adds to the visual experience of reading poetry; something that has always been an important facet of the genre.


As Heike Schaefer mentions in the article, Poetry in Transmedial Perspective: Rethinking Intermedial Literary Studies in the Digital Age, digital technologies “…have modified our aesthetic expectations and changed the ways in which…texts are composed, distributed and read today” (Schaefer, 2015). Being able to show poetry for what it looks like in the moment it is produced, and enhancing it with image-altering features, the poetry on Instagram perfectly positions itself as the look that those on the social media platform seek. Followers of these accounts are tremendous fans of the old typewriter look, and the way its photographed. So much so, that the.poetry.bandit recommends any poet starting on Instagram to invest in a typewriter to produce poetry on and then photograph. He says to “…Use hashtags, build a peer group, and let your writing do the talking. Get a typewriter…I think Tyler Knott and RM drake (fellow Instapoets) kind of made it a fad.” His words ring true, as almost all Instapoets with a large following have pictures of their poetry done by typewriting. By using modern digital technologies to capture old forms, poets on Instagram appeal to the Next Gen reader that is highly visually literate.


What also makes poetry on Instagram highly appealing to readers is its rawness: the lack of a middleman to edit. Tyler Knott (mentioned earlier by the.poetry.bandit), says that he “…never edits his 17-syllable haiku – ‘because it felt like betraying the exact emotion of the time’ – and Leav says anything she posts online should be considered a first draft” (Qureshi, theguardian). Often times, photos from poets are ones where you can see where the typewriter corrects itself, there are ink smudges, and sometimes even entire lines crossed out. Capturing these moments in a photo has shown how our technology can modify aesthetic appreciation. This especially rings true for poetry as readers of it are often writers as well, and it is nice to see these mistakes where elsewhere an editor may edit them out, or modify the writing to what the house prefers.


poem2And what we prefer nowadays in terms of reading is drastically different from what traditional publishing provides. Being surrounded by all this digital content, we have become accustomed to reading shorter texts, and poetry on Instagram fits right into this. Since the platform is primarily a photo-sharing platform, the constraints it immediately puts on writing places poetry at a disadvantage. However, Instapoets turn this limitation into a strength as their writing is better suited to showcase than opposed to other kinds of longer writing that is generally in magazines – online and print (Figeuroa). Even the.poetry.bandit agrees as he says, “the base population that like stuff on IG is here for the quick and dirty feel good poems”. The precision with words poets on Instagram have is what draws readers in and is what enables them to garner followings in such staggering numbers.


Take for instance Instapoet, roseclu who has just over 9,000 followers. Along with presenting her poetry with a typewriter, there is also simple hand written work that appeals to readers. Surely, this kind of work can appear in traditional print; however, what makes this excel in Instagram is that the app has an ability to present things in a unique tone which echoes the past. As mentioned earlier, editing poetry on the app with things such as filters, give the writing a vintage feel. In the article The Real Reason People Love Instagram by Adam Farwell he says,


The idea that an Instagram photo simply mimics the effects of an old camera is only a baseline appeal for the Instagram app. What really attracts us to the visuals of Instagram is the association we make with the past. In a world visually saturated by media, we crave deeper meaning in our own expression.

And that is exactly what poetry does: it offers meaning in expression. Drawing on the opening quote of this essay saying how posting a poem instead of a selfie is asking viewers to engage on a deeper level, it is clear how a poem that is edited can emanate poetry’s tradition of engaging readers. The purpose of poetry has always been the same; the new medium it is being expressed with just amplifies this and people are taking notice to it.


“…a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce.”
The New York Times

The Instapoetry phenomenon has gone on to garner the attention of traditional and non-traditional publishing houses as well. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Web Poets’ Society: New Breed Succeeds in Taking Verse Viral”, Tyler Knott has been noted to release his first collection of haikus after being noticed on Instagram. Speaking to the increasing popularity of poets on Instagram, The Times says that the poems, “…are reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, attracting the attention of literary agents, editors and publishers, and overturning poetry’s longstanding reputation as a lofty art form with limited popular appeal.” This goes to show how an art form, that has long been frustrating to publish, can gain new momentum with new technology.


The Times does acknowledge, however, that “Instapoets will probably now shake up the literary establishment”. Instead, they are working to reshape what poetry means today; that it is not in any sort of decline, and that readers of it are becoming increasingly easier to reach. This is seen in the take-off of some who have landed books with publishing houses. Instapoet langleav has landed a literary agent and US publisher, and her collection Love & Misadventure remains the top selling love poems on Amazon. With poets like Tyler Knott and Lang Leav, “…three of the top 10 bestselling poetry books in the US at present have been written by poets at the forefront of the Instapoet movement” (Qureshi, theguardian).


What has always been a genre that most likely give publishers the most grief, poetry has found a way to thrive on its own, underneath the massive waves of the internet. Being put into a platform that would not be thought of as a place to go read things, writing poetry, and capturing it on Instagram works. It utilizes a search technique that New Gen readers are familiar with, and by doing so it easily accessing audiences that would be difficult to find by means of a traditional publishing house. Also, it establishes an early readership; something useful for those Instapoets who could potentially be noticed by a publisher.


It may not be like the praised poetry of the classics: T.S Elliot, William Carlos Williams, etc., but the Instapoet movement is one to redefine what poetry means to readers today. As the.poetry.bandit puts it, readers are “here for the quick and dirty feel good poems”. Since our generation is accustomed to reading such web-based writing, we might as well make some of it poetry in a medium that is accessible and most of all, known to try and make some publishers not frown so much when they think of how to get poetry to people.









Brumberger, Eva. “Visual Literacy and the Digital Native: An Examination of the Millennial Learner.” Journal of Visual Literacy 30, no.1 (2011): Article Excerpt.


Figueroa, Melanie. “Poetry In The Age of Instagram.” Last modified September 6, 2014.


Schaefer, Heike. “Poetry in Transmedial Perspective: Rethinking Intermedial Literary Studies in the Digital Age.” Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media Studies 10, no. 1 (2015): 169-182.


Qureshi, Huma. “How do I love thee? Let me Instagram it.” theguardian November 23, 2015.

Context, Not Container – Seminar Notes

By Josh Oliveira


Book" A Futurist's Manifesto

All Rights Reserved, O’Reilly Media

Title: Content, Not Container – Seminar Notes
Notes Author: Josh Oliveira
Essay Author: Brian O’Leary
*Found In: Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto
*Publisher: O’Reilly
*Published: August 20, 2012
*Editors: Hugh McGuireBrian O’Leary
*ISBN: 978-1449305604
For: Publishing 800
Program: Master of Publishing
School: Simon Fraser University
Date: October 19, 2015
Summary: In his essay “Context, Not Container,” Brian O’Leary, a publishing guru at Magellan Media Consulting, argues that, while content, container, and context have always formed the basis of publishing, modern publishers are stuck in an outdated paradigm that places container first and context last. In truth, their places should be reversed. These seminar notes will help explicate these and other points.


  • Containers: These are the form or mediums in which any publishing is transmitted. Example include books, magazines, websites, newspapers, and ebooks. These containers may appear rigid, but are highly mutable, even interchangeable, so that the same or similar information could be found in numerous containers. O’Leary argues our tendency as publishers is to focus overly on the container.
  • Content: Content is the true product that the publishing industry seeks to monetize. It consists mainly of written words that create meaning and provide information. In recent years, all forms of content, including book publishing have become “content in browsers.” Even print books now exist increasingly online, as supported by recent sales numbers released by goodereader.com62% of all fiction books of any format sold in the US in 2014 were sold online
  • Context: In the physical world, in which publishing once solely existed, O’Leary states “intermediaries like booksellers, librarians, and reviewers” provided context. In publishing’s increasingly online marketplace, however, context refers to “tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata.”


An Emerging Threat

  • Current workflow hierarchy considers container first and context last. Whereas they should should start with context so that “both discovery and utility are enhanced” and see “containers as an option, not a starting point.”
  • Content fluidity should be stressed to make all content more accessible to users “across platforms, users, and uses.” This will open more opportunity for engagement.
  • Nimble upstarts put context first by offering interconnectivity as the key feature of what they publish. Ex., Craigslist.
  • Readers increasingly want discoverability, which can no longer be seen as a “cost or add-on.”
  • Digital disruption has made container convergence inevitable. So former newspaper and magazine content must now be discoverable wherever readers want it.
  • Falling barriers have created new entrants into publishing, including former marketers and even readers! To continue to offer value, traditional publishers must master context not content. Ex. Huffington Post

The Challenge of Container First

  • XML allows tagging of content in web documents. It is most useful for cookbooks, education, and travel, and least useful for novels.
  • “Born Digital” Entrants are beating traditional publishers on context, reaching niche readers easier.
  • Container-focused publishers try to impose an old hierarchy on the digital space. Their use of metadata, SEO, and syndication offer insufficient context.
  • Content overload means we can no longer expect readers to find us. Publishers must start with context to make content discoverable and should consider containers outputs, not starting points.

Making Content Agile, Discoverable, and Accessible

  • Container focus conflates format with brand. The Wall Street Journal is a brand not a newspaper.
  • Container myopia is nearsightedness that overestimates importance of container. Only by eliminating this can publishing recognize it is the “content solutions business”.
  • Open API (application programming interface) offers users freedom to utilize content as needed. Printed book technology predates API. Refusal to accept demand for open API leads content to “obscurity, at best.”
  •  Example: Student crowd sources schedule data because the school did not make it available. Lesson: People will find data, so why not just give it to them? 

The Consequence of a Bad API

  • Piracy results from bad API. If someone wants the content, they’ll get it. So a publisher’s job is to monetize the acquisition process. If readers want the printed book or ebook, sell it. But if they are willing to read it on a website, monetize the space using ads, links, offers of sale, and optimal web positioning.
  • The best API companies know to avoid coming between readers and content, especially in terms of time and effort. This is the key to Amazon’s success.

The Emerging Role of Context

  • Context evolving: Past context systems like Dewy and BISAC had less content to organize. Only online databases can contextualize all that data now.
  • The editorial role remains relevant post-container because proper context can only be established by relevant, deep, and consistent tagging.
  • Publishing needs heart transplant to remove containers as central concern and replace it with context, which will require new workflows.

Implications of Content Abundance

  • Content must be open and accessible. Or readers will go elsewhere. Compliance not optional.
  • Publishers must compete on context. Content must be as discoverable as possible.
  • Publisher’s can’t compete on price. Too many are willing to give content away. Still, publishers must make content broadly available at various price points to increase engagement.
  • Publishers can help readers manage abundance by organizing content in context. This can be done via highly specific imprints, as Harlequin has done well for years.
  • Content must be multi-use and recombinable as downward price pressure make single- use, one-container content too expensive. Selling small chunks of larger content will be important.
  • Changing workflow will require retraining. In the future, publishing must produce contextualized content for all containers, not set containers of content with added context, as before.

Theory in Practice

Brian O’Leary co-edited the book of essays in which “Context, Not Container” appears, called Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. It is available for sale and to read in its entirety on, a Montreal-based company providing ebook and print conversions for authors. That’s where we accessed it. The co-editor of the book, Hugh McGuire, founded PressBooks.

The book available from various online sellers, including the publisher’s own store, in all typical formats. On, it is additionally available as an ebook rental for under $1 per week. The essay further appears in a modified form on Mr. O’Leary’s website and appears to be the basis for some of his speaking engagements.

All this shows deep commitment to the article’s demands for context primacy, easy accessibility, various engagement points, container mutability, broad distribution, and recombination of content.


  1. Do we agree with O’Leary’s argument that the influence of containers is waning while that of context has increased?
  2. What are some ways publishers already seek to provide context? What more can they do?
  3. One of O’Leary’s premises is that piracy results primarily from bad API. With that in mind, how might authors make their content more available without necessarily giving it away?